With his son’s scheduled execution nine days away, Kent Whitaker met Tuesday in Austin with the chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to personally request mercy for the child responsible for ripping his life apart.
Thomas Whitaker was sentenced to death for arranging the 2003 ambush that killed his mother and brother and severely wounded his father in their Sugar Land home. Even so, Kent Whitaker has forgiven his son — and he desperately wants Texas officials to honor his request to spare the life of “the last surviving member of my natural family.”
“Nobody in my family wants to see him executed, and I’m going to be thrown into a deeper grief at the hands of the state of Texas and in the name of justice, and I just feel there is a more appropriate sentence than execution,” Kent Whitaker said after a half-hour meeting with David Gutiérrez, chairman of the seven-member parole board.
“Texas prides itself on being a victims’ rights state,” he said. “But being a victims’ rights state should mean something … even when the victim, as in this case, is asking for mercy and not just revenge.”
Kent Whitaker, who credits his Christian faith for allowing him to forgive his son, said Gutiérrez did not ask questions or react to his message or to statements made by his brother, Keith Whitaker, and his second wife, Tanya Whitaker.
“It’s extremely rare that a board member will meet with a victim, and we’re very grateful that Chairman Gutiérrez gave us the time out of his schedule to actually hear our heart and what this coming execution is going to mean to our family and the chaos it’s going to put us in,” said Kent Whitaker, 69.
“I can’t tell you how it went; I don’t know,” he said. “I have been told that it will be a week from today before the votes are collected, so we’re going to be in limbo for at least another week as to what they are going to choose to do.”
Last month, lawyers for Kent Whitaker filed a clemency petition asking the parole board to recommend that Gov. Greg Abbott reduce Thomas Whitaker’s sentence to life in prison, and they presented an affidavit signed by the inmate that waives parole should his sentence be commuted.
The petition argued that commutation would spare additional grief for Kent Whitaker, the crime’s chief living victim, and that Thomas Whitaker’s exemplary conduct on death row earned him the right to seek mercy — earning a college degree by mail, encouraging other condemned inmates to get their high school GED certificates and talking an inmate out of attacking a guard.
The petition included affidavits from four former and current death row guards who called him a “model inmate” who follows orders, is respectful and easy going, and has been a positive influence on other inmates.
The petition also pointed to a disparity in sentencing, noting that the gunman, 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, now 38.
Prosecutors in the Fort Bend County district attorney’s office oppose clemency, saying jurors chose to assess the death penalty based on the severity of the crime — even after hearing Thomas Whitaker’s father plead for his life and learning that his accomplices had received lighter sentences.
Knowing he faces long odds in reversing his son’s punishment, Kent Whitaker said he hoped Abbott would see an opportunity for a “win-win situation.”
“I know he doesn’t want to appear to be soft on crime, and he never has been,” Kent Whitaker said. “But some would argue that spending life in prison for the rest of your natural life is a harder punishment than being placed on death row for a short period of time. He could still be tough on crime by inflicting that very hard penalty … and at the same time honor my rights, as a victim, to mercy in this case.
“We’re not asking them to forgive him or let him go, we just want them to let him live.”
In a second bid to save Thomas Whitaker from his Feb. 22 execution date, lawyers have also asked the state’s highest criminal court to take another look at his case, arguing that jurors plainly got it wrong when they determined that Whitaker was eligible for the death penalty because posed a danger to commit violence in the future.
“Whitaker is not only not a future danger, he is not a present danger,” they told the Court of Criminal Appeals.