AUSTIN, Texas - Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ultimately decided whether convicted killer Thomas “Bart” Whitaker lived or died.
On Thursday, Abbott decided to grant the first commutation of a death sentence in his three years as governor.
Whitaker will not be put to death, he will instead serve life in prison.
“In just over three years as Governor, I have allowed 30 executions. I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now," Abbott said in a statement.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles made a unanimous recommendation that Abbott commute his death sentence. Abbott is running for re-election and his decision could have political ramifications going forward, that is, if he were facing a tough Republican challenger in the Primary.
Mark Jones, a political science professor with the Baker Institute, said since he’s not, he doesn’t believe the governor has anything to worry about. Jones also said he believes that sparing Whitaker’s life will only help the governor is November’s election.
“Because he will be seen as the compassionate stance and it will certainly not alienate many voters. To the extent in which is does alienate any voters, it’s going to alienate strong conservatives who are probably going to vote for governor Abbott in the end anyway, not for a democrat,” Jones said.
KPRC talked to Governor Abbott on Tuesday during a political event in Houston.
“I think the most important thing is both I and my staff have the opportunity to evaluate all the facts, all the circumstances, all the law and base our decision on all of that information,” Abbott said. Whitaker is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Thursday.
In December 2003, investigators said Whitaker arranged to make the shooting look like he and his family members interrupted a burglary as they returned home from dinner.
A masked gunman inside the home shot and killed Whitaker's 19-year-old brother, Kevin, and his mother, Tricia.
The shooter wounded Whitaker and his father, Kent Whitaker.
After his son's life was spared, Kent said he was grateful Abbott made the decision.
"It was, it was overpowering and I'm so grateful," he said. "He did make the right decision and we're very grateful for that."
Now that his son's life has been spared, Kent said he has another goal.
"We touched hands through the glass and we said our goodbyes," he said. "Perhaps he'll earn the privilege of having an open visit where I'll be able to actually hug him."
Here is the full statement from Abbott:
“As a former trial court judge, Texas Supreme Court Justice and Attorney General involved in prosecuting some of the most notorious criminals in Texas, I have the utmost regard for the role that juries and judges play in our legal system. The role of the Governor is not to second-guess the court process or re-evaluate the law and evidence. Instead, the Governor’s role under the Constitution is distinct from the judicial function. The Governor’s role is to consider recommendations by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and view matters through a lens broader than the facts and law applied to a single case. That is particularly important in death penalty cases.
“In just over three years as Governor, I have allowed 30 executions. I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now, for reasons I here explain.
“The murders of Mr. Whitaker’s mother and brother are reprehensible. The crime deserves severe punishment for the criminals who killed them. The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison.
“The decision of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is supported by the totality of circumstances in this case. The person who fired the gun that killed the victims did not receive the death penalty, but Mr. Whitaker, who did not fire the gun, did get the death penalty. That factor alone may not warrant commutation for someone like Mr. Whitaker who recruited others to commit murder. Additional factors make the decision more complex.
“Mr. Whitaker’s father, who survived the attempt on his life, passionately opposes the execution of his son. Mr. Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member. Also, Mr. Whitaker voluntarily and forever waived any and all claims to parole in exchange for a commutation of his sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole. Moreover, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted for commutation. The totality of these factors warrants a commutation of Mr. Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mr. Whitaker must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime.”
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