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Inmate facing death uses letters from fellow death row prisoners to argue for reprieve

Thomas "Bart" Whitaker is slated to die on Feb. 22 for the 2003 slayings of his mother and younger brother


By Keri Blakinger
Houston Chronicle

FORT BEND, Texas — A Fort Bend death row prisoner scheduled for execution in February for his role in a plot to kill his own family is begging for a reprieve in a request bolstered by 58 letters of support - including seven fellow death row prisoners.

Thomas "Bart" Whitaker is slated to die on Feb. 22 for the 2003 slayings of his mother and younger brother, who the Sugar Land man had killed in a murder-for-hire scheme aimed at snagging a hefty $1 million inheritance. The attack wounded Whitaker's father, who has since fought against his son's death sentence and serves as the centerpiece of the commutation request now before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

This undated FILE photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows death row inmate Thomas Whitaker. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP, File)
This undated FILE photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows death row inmate Thomas Whitaker. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP, File)

"There is only one person on Earth who is intimate with the murderous attack, the lives and deaths of the other victims, and the life of Thomas Whitaker - Mr. Whitaker's father, Kent. Kent was there," the condemned man's attorneys wrote in their petition.

"For the rest of us, the case against commutation to a life sentence seems clear. We can't forgive; we have no sympathy. But clemency is not about something so simple as sympathy or as formidable as forgiveness."

The petition describes the deaths in graphic detail, draws comparisons to the story of Cain and Abel and lays out a scene of the grieving father on his knees begging prosecutors to spare his son.

But Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey defended the decision to continue pursuing the state's harshest punishment and pushed back against Whitaker's petition for clemency.

"Bart Whitaker is a master manipulator of reality," he said. "And this approach doesn't surprise me at all."

The 2003 killings took place just after celebratory dinner marking Whitaker's supposed graduation from Sam Houston State University - a milestone that never happened. Before the ruse of a dinner, Whitaker had arranged for two friends to wait at the family home for a burglary set-up.

When the family of four returned home from the restaurant, a gunman opened fire as they walked through the door, killing 51-year-old Patricia Whitaker and 19-year-old Kevin.

Afterward, as police probed the killings, Whitaker stole $10,000 from his father and fled to Mexico.

When authorities picked him up 15 months later, his father hired an attorney to argue against the capital case.

The pair of slayings came after three years of planning and at least one previous murder attempt, according to court papers.

Triggerman Chris Brashear pleaded guilty to murder a decade ago and took a life sentence, while the getaway driver - Steve Champagne - agreed to a 15-year plea deal.

Over his father's protestations, Whitaker was sentenced to death. But in the intervening years, his attorneys argue in Wednesday's petition, he's had an awakening described by other death row inmates, teachers, extended family and international pen pals.

"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."

Healey was not impressed to hear of Whitaker's letters from fellow prisoners.

"What a noble group of supporters," he said. The decision to seek death over Kent Whitaker's objections, he said, stemmed from the need to represent "society as a whole" instead of solely weighing the opinions of the victims' family.

"My conscience and that of the prosecutors, I'm certain, has been clear."

©2018 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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