Governor commutes ex-BU student’s death sentence

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) Gov. Greg Abbott late Thursday afternoon commuted the death sentence of a former Baylor student who faced execution Thursday evening for his role in the shooting deaths of his mother and brother.

Thomas "Bart" Whitaker. (CNN VAN photo)

The seven-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose members are appointed by the governor, recommended unanimously Tuesday that Gov. Greg Abbott commute Thomas “Bart” Whitaker's death sentence.

“The decision of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is supported by the totality of circumstances in this case. The person who fired the gun that killed the victims did not receive the death penalty, but Mr. Whitaker, who did not fire the gun, did get the death penalty,” Abbott said.

“Mr. Whitaker’s father, who survived the attempt on his life, passionately opposes the execution of his son. Mr. Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member. Also, Mr. Whitaker 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 said.

“The murders of Mr. Whitaker’s mother and brother are reprehensible. The crime deserves severe punishment for the criminals who killed them. The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison,” Abbott said.

The announcement of the decision came just hours after Whitaker was transferred from the prison unit that houses men’s death row to Huntsville, where he was placed in a cell near the death chamber.

Whitaker said in a statement to prison officials: "I'm thankful not for me but for my dad."

He went on to say, "Any punishment that I would have or will receive is just, but my dad did nothing wrong."

Whitaker, who attended Baylor in 2001 before transferring to Sam Houston State University, was sentenced to die for masterminding the fatal shootings of his mother and brother at their suburban Houston home in 2003 in a plot to collect inheritance.

He spent the morning meeting with relatives, including his father, who has pushed to have his son's life spared even though he was wounded in the shootings.

It's only the fourth time since the state resumed executions in 1982 that the parole board has recommended clemency this close to an inmate's scheduled execution.

In two of those cases, then Gov. Rick Perry rejected the board's recommendation and those prisoners were executed.

Before Thursday, Abbott had never commuted a death sentence.