Last Thursday, Thomas Whitaker’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in an order issued less than an hour before the scheduled execution. It is the first commutation of a death sentence in Texas in more than a decade.
In 2007, Thomas Whitaker was convicted of capital murder for planning the deaths of his mother and brother. Mr. Whitaker, 23 years old at the time, was sentenced to death, despite pleas for a life sentence from his father, who survived the shooting, the immediate family, and his mother’s family.
Mr. Whitaker’s father, Kent Whitaker, passionately sought clemency for his son. “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.”
In a clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Kent Whitaker said he is proud of his son, who is profoundly different now from the troubled young man he was at the time of the crime. Letters from incarcerated men and former prison guards attached to the clemency petition described Thomas as a model inmate who gives care packages to newly arrived inmates who don’t yet have access to the commissary. He has encouraged other incarcerated men to get their GED certificates and is known for keeping people calm and positive, especially those struggling with mental illness. He received a bachelor’s degree through a correspondence program and is close to earning a master’s degree in English literature from Cal State.
The board rarely grants clemency to people with death sentences — the last time was in 2009 — and almost never makes unanimous recommendations in these cases. A week before the scheduled execution, the board unanimously recommended clemency for Thomas Whitaker.
Governor Abbott said the board’s decision “is supported by the totality of circumstances in this case” and was one of many factors he considered in commuting Whitaker’s sentence, including that Mr. Whitaker’s accomplice, Chris Brashear, was the triggerman who shot the victims but received a lesser sentence of life with parole; Kent Whitaker, a victim of the crime, opposed the execution; and Thomas agreed not to appeal his life sentence. Abbott has allowed over 30 executions to go forward in just over three years as governor, including three so far this year. This is the first time he has commuted a death sentence, and his decision is being celebrated as a model of “restorative justice.”
Thomas Whitaker will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. A Spanish speaker, he plans to help teach English as a second language to incarcerated people in general population.