Texas governor commutes sentence of death row inmate

A Texas man is being spared the death penalty by Governor Greg Abbott. The Republican decided to commute the sentence of Thomas Bart Whitaker on Thursday, a little over half an hour before he was set to die by lethal injection. Abbott’s decision came a couple days after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted in favor of changing his sentence from death to life in prison. It’s a bit of a trying case for Abbott, and one which could hurt him in the November election because it involves a brutal crime, forgiveness, and possibly redemption.

Whitaker was sent to death row for a 2003 murder-for-hire plot on his family. He hired two friends to kill his family, and make it seem like a burglary. It didn’t go as planned because Whitaker’s father survived the attack, despite serious injuries, although Whitaker’s brother and mother were killed. The motive was believed to be so Whitaker could get an inheritance because he’d flunked out of Sam Houston State. Whitaker was not offered a plea deal, unlike his friends, and ended up on death row.

Here’s where it gets more interesting: Whitaker’s father has spent the last eleven years (including during trial) trying to get son from ending up on death row. Kent Whitaker told Houston Chronicle in 2007 he’d lost his entire family, two to the grave and one prison, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him, saying “God allowed me to forgive Bart.”

He took it a step further during a news conference on Tuesday by using a phrase heard quite often during trials, political speeches, or on TV: victims’ rights (via Texas Tribune).

Victims’ rights should mean something in this state, even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance…[Bart Whitaker] is the last member of my direct family, and he’s gonna be taken from us by the state of Texas in the name of justice in a way that none of my family wants.

It appears the Texas Parole Board may have recommended clemency because his fellow death row inmates say he serves as an example of what rehabilitation can do. Via Houston Chronicle:

“Of all the people I have met over the years Thomas Whitaker is the person I believe deserves clemency the most,” wrote death row inmate William Speer, who described him as “one of the best-liked inmates” who has “worked the hardest” to rehabilitate himself.

“Killing him would be a crime, because the system needs men like him out on the farms keeping everyone calm and looking forward,” Speer wrote. “Please give him another chance.”

Here’s where it gets more complicated. The original prosecutors in the case, along with a juror, still wanted Whitaker to die. Fred Felcman told Houston Chronicle Whitaker still deserved lethal injection due to what the jury decided during trial.

“The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored the twelve jurors out here who heard all the facts and followed the law and had the opinion Whitaker should receive the death penalty. They completely ignored them,” Felcman said Tuesday. “They also ignored the Bartlett family, Patricia’s side of the family, who wanted him executed, who feel threatened by him and scared of him.”

Felcman also argued the state board’s decision lessened the work of by local law enforcement involved in the original investigation.

“The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored the police officers who worked on the case and they ignored the District Attorney’s office, which had to make decision based on the law and the stringent requirements we need to make on death penalty cases. They just arbitrarily decide not to follow that?” Felcman said. “They also ignored the community in Fort Bend County that was outraged by the crime. They ignored the citizens here who were satisfied justice had been done.”

That’s the minefield Abbott had to navigate before Thursday’s decision on Thomas Whitaker’s fate. Abbott actually did a pretty decent job at doing so, while making sure he didn’t seem to be wobbling from his tough on crime reputation.

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.

Abbott noted the complexity of the situation, but decided it was best to honor the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Whitaker’s father.

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.

I have a rather complex opinion of the death penalty. I’m not against it (I am from Texas after all), but I’m not necessarily for it. The arguments conservative and libertarian anti-death penalty advocates make have made me think harder about whether it’s worth it. New Wave Feminists (which is a pro-life group) founder Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa had a pretty interesting criticism of the ultimate punishment in The Dallas Morning News.

[C]onservatives claim to be a party that supports small government and often laments its corruption and incompetency, so it baffles me the willingness to give this entity the ultimate power over our lives and deaths — especially with the number of inmates who have been exonerated in recent years once DNA testing proved their innocence. After learning all of this, I had no choice but to accept that capital punishment is outdated and unnecessary.

There’s more than just an emotional reaction to saying, “Let’s not put this guy to death,” but a financial one. Texas is scheduled to spend over $2.6M on post-conviction representation in death penalty cases this year, with an incarcerated felons budget of $2.7B. The state has already done an excellent job at reducing the size of the prison population, not by releasing violent criminals, but by enacting reforms focusing on rehabilitation and supervision. Texas has been able to close multiple prisons, while also seeing its crime rate drop to historic lows. It’s possible Texas could end up eliminating the death penalty all together if the prison population gets to the point where the only people in prison are violent felons.

There will probably be plenty of cases where a strong death penalty argument can, and should, be made, but in this situation, Abbott made the right decision.