Thomas Bartlett "Bart" Whitaker (born December 31, 1979) is an American convicted of murdering two family members, under the Texas Law of Parties, who spent nearly 11 years on death row at the Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas. He was convicted for the December 10, 2003, murders of his mother and brother by gunman Chris Brashear and sentenced to death in March 2007.
On February 22, 2018, 45 minutes before the scheduled execution at 6:00 pm, Whitaker had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment without parole by Governor Greg Abbott, the first time Governor Abbott has done so. He currently resides in the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, in solitary confinement.
== Background ==
Whitaker had enlisted Chris Brashear to carry out the murders and Steven Champagne to be the getaway driver. Whitaker's father Kent was shot but survived. Whitaker fled to Mexico in the Summer of 2004 following a tip-off that he would shortly be arrested for the murders. He lived there for over a year under the false name of Rudy Ríos. On September 15, 2005, a capital murder warrant was issued against Whitaker. Cooperating with US authorities, Mexican authorities arrested Whitaker without incident under immigration charges. In September 2005 Whitaker was handed over to US authorities at the border town of Laredo, Texas, where he was arrested for capital murder.The State of Texas executes by overdosing the condemned with pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy and Whitaker's defense lawyers had claimed the state's first two executions of 2018 were botched because of old lethal injection drugs. Whitaker withdrew his appeal pending at the Supreme Court of the United States, pertaining to the purity of the drug used in Texas executions, just before the Governor granted clemency and commuted his sentence.In a rare decision on February 20, 2018, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously recommended that the death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. The recommendation from the seven-member panel was sent to Republican Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott accepted their recommendation, and commuted Whitaker's death sentence, noting that Whitaker had "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". Abbott cited the fact that Whitaker did not fire the gun and that his father Kent "insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member", as the reasons for the commutation. Whitaker responded to the commutation of his sentence by saying, "I am thankful for this decision, not for me but for my dad". In 2012, Whitaker had previously stated his strong opposition to the idea of life without the possibility for parole, and wrote in his blog from prison:
LWOP, however, offends and assaults everything I believe in. It irrevocably denies any possibility of rehabilitation; it eviscerates hope entirely. It is for this reason that I would never sign for it, even if that were the only way to evade a return to death row.
== Early life ==
Whitaker attended Clements High School, but had to leave as a result of burglaries he had committed with other students. As a result, he was evaluated by a psychologist who stated that he was "experiencing the clinical symptoms of a delusional (paranoid) disorder". Whitaker had previously recruited others in a plot to murder his family in 2001 which ended up being aborted. At the trial, one of the recruits from 2001 said that he had contacted the Sugar Land Police Department with information about the previous plot when he heard about the murders in 2003. This individual was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying for the prosecution against Whitaker.A 2009 psychological evaluation of Whitaker noted that after high school he was given, "More of the unearned trappings of wealth" while his thoughts became even more disorganized. Whitaker's affluent parents had bought him several luxury vehicles and paid for his tuition at Baylor University and Sam Houston State University. They also bought him a lakeside townhouse in Willis, Texas, and a $4,000 Rolex watch was given to him as a graduation present hours before the murders, despite the fact that he was not enrolled at college at the time. Whitaker also had access to an $80,000 trust fund from his grandparents, although he testified in court that he did not know he could access it. He had dropped out of university but did not notify his parents.
== Murders ==
On December 10, 2003, Whitaker falsely told his family that he had just taken his final exams and would soon be graduating from Sam Houston State University. They drove to the nearby Pappadeaux restaurant in Stafford for a celebratory dinner. Meanwhile Chris Brashear, dressed in black, including a ski mask, had entered the Whitaker family home, taken Kevin's gun and ammunition from a locked box in his room, staged a burglary, and then waited near the front door for the Whitaker family to return home.Upon returning home, but before entering the house, Thomas said that he needed to collect his cell phone from his parked Yukon, knowing that Brashear was armed and waiting inside to kill his family.
Thomas' brother Kevin entered the family home first and reportedly smiled when he saw the masked Brashear. Brashear shot Kevin once through his chest and he fell to the floor. Patricia was also shot in the chest and fell to the floor. Kent rushed in and was shot in the shoulder with the bullet shattering his humerus. Thomas then ran inside and staged a struggle with Brashear, getting shot in his left arm to divert suspicion.
Brashear then exited through the Whitakers' back door and jumped the fence into the rear neighbour's yard. Kevin died within minutes of being shot. Patricia died shortly after being airlifted by Life Flight service on the way to Memorial Hermann Hospital. Thomas told First Responders that he thought the gunman was black, in order to divert suspicion away from Brashear. Kent survived the murder attempt.
== Conviction ==
At his trial in March 2007, prosecutors alleged that although it wasn't Whitaker who shot his family members, he was responsible for the murders because he played the leading part in the conspiracy to commit murder. Whitaker was refused a plea bargain by the District Attorney in return for his admission of guilt and was tried for capital murder. The prosecution claimed that Whitaker had wanted his family dead so he could capitalize on a million-dollar life insurance payout. Whitaker denies this and says that the only life insurance policy the family had was for $50,000 on his father's life. Whitaker claims that a mental disorder, exacerbated by drug abuse, caused him to want his family eliminated.Kent Whitaker had already forgiven his son for his part in the murders and had tried to persuade the jury not to deliver a death sentence. However, the jury decided to convict Whitaker of capital murder under the Texas law of parties. Chris Brashear received a life sentence in a plea bargain worked out with prosecutors and Steven Champagne received 15 years in return for being the main witness for the prosecution.
== Appeals ==
Whitaker appealed his death sentence on the grounds of the ineffectiveness of his trial counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, the arbitrariness of the death penalty punishment and the cruelty of the lethal injection, in violation of the eighth amendment to the U.S. constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.In April 2017, his appeal against prosecutorial misconduct was dismissed by the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.On October 10, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal based on his claims that his trial lawyer was deficient and that Fort Bend County prosecutors engaged in misconduct by improperly referring to discussion of a plea deal that never was reached. The justices provided no explanation for their refusal. On November 1, 2017, his death warrant was signed, scheduling his execution for February 22, 2018.Whitaker stated that his father, Kent, would have been revictimized by his execution. Kent Whitaker, the only surviving victim of the crime, wrote a book about the murders titled Murder by Family detailing his forgiveness for his son's actions. Kent also wrote to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking for clemency for his son, and the Chairman of the Board met with him for half an hour. The Board unanimously recommended clemency to Governor Greg Abbott.Thomas Whitaker and other inmates initiated an unsuccessful class action suit against the conditions on Texas death row where inmates are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
== Writing ==
He has contributed to Solitary Watch where he wrote about the effects of solitary confinement on himself and other death row inmates. He also contributed to Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement.He won prizes in PEN America's prison writing contests for "Hell's Kitchen", "Manufacturing Anomie" and the essay "A Nothing Would Do as Well". He was named a PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow in 2018 for writing about incarceration and criminal justice in the United States. In 2007, he founded an inmate blog, entitled Minutes Before Six which publishes articles, poetry and art from inmates held in prisons in the United States, maintained by volunteers. Texas inmates are typically executed at 6:00 p.m. in the Huntsville Unit.
Whitaker received a Bachelor of Arts in English and Sociology from Adams State University, and a Master of Arts degree in English from California State University, Dominguez Hills while on death row.
== See also ==
Jennifer Pan – an Ontario woman who ordered a hit on her family after she faked attending a university
Dana Ewell – a California man who arranged the execution of his family after lying about business success while at college
Atif Ahmad Rafay – a Washington State man who killed his mother, father, and disabled sister along with best friend Glen Sebastian Burns for financial gain
== References ==
== External links ==
Faces of Death Row: The Texas Tribune
Fort Bend Criminal Case Records
Texas Execution Information Center
Texas Department of Criminal Justice Offender Information
Death Row Inmates Sue Texas Governor Rick Perry For Abusive Conditions
Forensic Files – Season 13 Episode 43 "Family Interrupted"
OWN Murder In The Family
Letters from Death Row: Faith Behind Bars – The Texas Observer
THOMAS BARTLETT WHITAKER v. THE STATE OF TEXAS
Prison Writing & Political Will
Buried Alive: Stories From Inside Solitary Confinement