HOUSTON - Imagine going out to dinner knowing when you got home that your family would be shot dead. That was Bart Whitaker's heinous plan.
Inside his Sugar Land home in 2003, it worked almost to perfection. Now, in his first Houston interview from death row, Whitaker talks about the crime nine years ago and the surprising reasons he's now suing the state over his punishment.
"I've made some really bad mistakes in my life," said Whitaker during a 40-minute interview with KPRC Local 2. "I was a very messed up young man. There are some people who are never going to get past that."
When you remember the unbelievable magnitude of the crime Whitaker committed, you know why many feel that way. After a family dinner on celebrating a lie that he'd graduated college, Whitaker and his family drove home to their upscale Sugar Land home on Dec. 10, 2003. Then they walked into ultimate betrayal.
A masked gunman inside their home shot and killed Whitaker's 19-year-old brother, Kevin, in the front room of the house. Then, he shot and killed Whitaker's 51-year-old mom, Tricia. The shooter wounded Whitaker's 54-year-old father, Kent, and a bullet hit Whitaker in his arm.
It all looked like a robbery turned nightmare.
But when the crime's puzzle was put together, all clues pointed to Bart Whitaker. Turns out he hired the gunman, orchestrated the murders and did it all for what prosecutors called "irrational hate." Fort Bend County jurors sentenced him to death.
"Obviously, I think about what I could have done every day," Whitaker said. "But those types of thoughts are really torture back here. I have to limit myself to the good I can do in the here and now, or otherwise I will break."
Whitaker said he often feels like he's watching a movie of someone else's life.
"If there's any way my mother and brother are watching me, I want them to be proud of the way I'm living now," said Whitaker. "That is foremost in my mind every minute of every day."
Almost ironically, Whitaker spends his day battling against the punishment for his crime. He filed a class-action lawsuit against the state for what he said are the cruel and unusual conditions on death row. Whitaker's lawsuit complains about the lack of TVs and telephones, bad food and poor medical care, and mostly about the forced isolation. Inmates on death row are forced to stay at least 23 hours in their cell every day with no interaction with anyone else.
He knows people in Houston believe the conditions are exactly what he deserves.
"Nobody is trying to create the Ritz Carlton back here," said Whitaker. "All we're trying to create is a rational environment where punishment has a purpose. That should be what incarceration is about."
One person standing by Whitaker is his dad. Kent Whitaker now travels the country speaking about forgiveness. He wrote a best-selling book about it and still visits his son almost every week.
"We are closer now that we have ever been," Bart Whitaker said. "We were basically two ships passing in the night. Now, we're very close and I think in certain aspects he's proud of me for some of the things I've done in here."
However, Bart Whitaker continues to disconnect himself from that December night in 2003. He refers to that time as his "former life." He said he now chooses to no longer go by the name Bart, but by his first name Thomas. The Sugar Land inmate said he now also wants to be remembered for changing the way Texas punishes those who commit such terrible crimes.
"I'm going to be the lightening rod on this until someone else better qualified stands up," said Bart Whitaker.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice had no comment on Bart Whitaker's lawsuit. A representative said the TDCJ does not talk about pending litigation.
Death Row inmate thinks death penalty unfair to his father
Whitaker also talked about his eventual execution day.
"Obviously, everyone back here (on death row) has plenty of time to think about their lives," said Whitaker.
Whitaker said he does not spend much time thinking about his execution day, but he's not ignoring it.
"I don't worry about it because I don't expect it to happen. I do expect it to happen," said Whitaker. "It's just not something I concern myself with on a daily basis. I'm comfortable with all of that."
What Whitaker said he's not comfortable with is the situation left for his father. Kent Whitaker has forgiven his son. He pleaded for jurors to spare Bart Whitaker's life. However, one day Kent Whitaker will likely see his only surviving son be put to death because of the heinous act of the crime.
"Yes, we've talked about it," Bart Whitaker said. "I'm not sure what the state of Texas thinks it's getting out of all of this. It's sort of like, I feel like I'm going to revictimize (sic) my father again. I don't know what to do about that. I understand there is a time when victims want an execution for closure, but this wasn't the case."
So far, there's no date set for Bart Whitaker's execution. His criminal case still has one final federal appeal pending.
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