- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
Thomas Whitaker is on Texas death row because he lured his family out to dinner so a friend could slip into their Sugar Land home to gun down his mother, father and brother when they returned.
Shot in the upper chest in the 2003 attack, Kent Whitaker barely survived the ambush, but only after hearing the first two bullets that killed his youngest, Kevin, a college sophomore, and wife Tricia, whose last sounds he heard were a series of weak, wet coughs as blood filled her lungs.
Now 38, Thomas Whitaker is scheduled to be executed on Feb. 22 for the crime.
His father, however, is making a last-ditch plea to spare his son’s life despite the heartache and suffering he caused.
In a plea for clemency on the father’s behalf, Austin lawyer Keith Hampton and Houston lawyer James Rytting asked Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a rarely granted 30-day reprieve and for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that Abbott commute Thomas Whitaker’s sentence to life in prison.
“I have seen too much killing already,” Kent Whitaker told the American-Statesman. “I don’t want to see him executed right there in front of my eyes. I know Tricia and Kevin would not want him to be executed. I can’t imagine seeing the last living part of my family executed by the state, especially since all the victims didn’t want that to happen in the first place.”
Whitaker said he, his immediate family and members of Tricia’s family urged Fort Bend County prosecutors to choose a life sentence instead of the death penalty, but to no avail.
Now, he said, it’s time for Abbott and the seven parole board members to listen.
“We’re not asking them to set him free. We’re not asking them to forgive him. I mean, that’s not their business, but what we are asking them to do is to correct a legal overstep that never should’ve happened in the first place,” he said.
Urging Abbott and the board to pay particular attention to the desires of Kent Whitaker, the crime’s chief victim, the clemency petition posed a series of stark questions:
• “Is clemency warranted where execution might be justice for a wicked crime, yet would also permanently compound the suffering and grief of the remaining victim?”
• “Is death still the right answer even when it will subject a victim to new pain to be suffered in perpetuity?”
• “Is killing Thomas Whitaker more important than sparing Kent Whitaker?”
The petition also noted that the shooter, Chris Brashear, was given a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder, while the getaway driver, Steve Champagne, agreed to a 15-year plea deal and testified against Whitaker.
Kent Whitaker, 69, credits his Christian faith for helping him forgive Thomas — a journey he chronicled in the book, “Murder by Family,” billed in a subtitle as the “incredible true story of a son’s treachery and a father’s forgiveness.”
As he lay in the hospital, Whitaker recalled, he was sharply torn between knowing that God wanted him to forgive the shooter and fantasizing about repeatedly hurting the gunman — whom he saw as a vague, ski-mask-wearing figure inside his darkened home.
“All I could do was ask God for help. When I did that, the strangest thing that ever happened in my life occurred. I felt a warm glow flow over me. It lasted only a couple seconds, but when it left, all the desire for revenge, all the hatred disappeared,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out why God would do that.”
Police soon broke the news that his son — who had been shot in the left arm, ostensibly while scuffling with the gunman — was suspected of arranging the shootings. The need for forgiveness became suddenly clear, he said.
“If he was going to ever trust God, I realized that he needed to believe that forgiveness was available to him, and if Dad could forgive him, then maybe God could forgive him,” Kent Whitaker said.
Prosecutors argued that Thomas Whitaker was under the mistaken belief that he would receive a $1 million inheritance, but Kent Whitaker believes his son was suffering from unrecognized mental health issues.
“It was never about the money,” Kent Whitaker said. “There wasn’t that much to start with. The prosecution always way overexaggerated my wealth because that played into their arguments.”
Fred Felcman, first assistant district attorney for Fort Bend County and the lead prosecutor in Whitaker’s trial, said his office opposes the request for clemency, adding that jurors heard the same information contained in the petition, including Kent Whitaker’s plea to spare his son’s life.
“Everything they’ve got in there was given to the jury. I let it all come out. The jury knew what happened with the triggerman, what the getaway driver was getting, and the jury still rendered a verdict,” Felcman said. “If the governor wants us to file an answer, we will. Otherwise, I expect him to be executed on Feb. 22.”
In addition to seeking support for the father’s wishes, the clemency petition argued that Thomas Whitaker has changed his life on death row in ways that deserve attention, and the document included multiple letters from death row inmates and others arguing on Whitaker’s behalf.
Condemned inmate Keith Milam said that Thomas Whitaker has a “special affinity of helping guys with mental illness.”
Inmate Faryion Wardrip said Whitaker inspired him and others to better themselves and praised his “uncanny ability to calm others” on death row.
“He is one of the best liked inmates on this farm by the guards and other inmates, and he 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,” inmate William Speer wrote.
“It is worth reminding that Thomas Whitaker is on death row in part because he was believed to be a future danger to inmates. We know this to be untrue,” the clemency petition said.
Kent Whitaker said he is proud of the man his son became in prison and that after remarrying, his wife, Tanya, also came to love Thomas during frequent prison visits.
Thomas Whitaker provides care packages to newly arrived inmates — a toothbrush, razor, coffee packets, chips — because commissary privileges take a while to set up, and he encouraged at least two inmates to get their high school GED certificates, Kent Whitaker said. A Spanish speaker, Thomas wants to help teach English as a second language to fellow inmates if he is given a life sentence and placed in the general population.
“He has taken a deeper appreciation of other people than he had when he was in the free world,” Kent Whitaker said.
Thomas received a bachelor’s degree by mail and is close to earning a master’s degree in English literature from Cal State.
“His master’s thesis is in committee. It won’t be finished until well after Feb. 22, but his adviser has assured both of us that regardless of what happens, it will be approved and the master’s of literature degree will be bestowed to him,” Kent said.
If that Feb. 22 execution date is not lifted, Kent Whitaker said he will be there, behind the glass partition, at the Huntsville death chamber.
“As he goes to sleep, I want him to be able to look at me and see that I love him. I really want him to know that I forgive him, that I love him,” he said. “Tanya will be there too, and he’ll see the same thing in her eyes.
“I don’t want to see this. God, I don’t want to see this. I’ve seen enough killing. But I can’t imagine letting him be in the room by himself without anyone there with him.”