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Texas board recommends clemency after father’s pleas for his son on death row

Kent Whitaker, left, and his son Bart Whitaker during a visit to Bart’s prison in Polunsky, Tex. (AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Kent Whitaker was down to his last option.

In 2003, the Texas man was gunned down with his wife and two college-aged sons as they returned home from dinner. Whitaker and his oldest son, Thomas “Bart”  Whitaker, survived. But in 2007, Bart was convicted of orchestrating the attack in a bizarre murder plot that drew national attention.

That spotlight — and controversy — only grew after Whitaker publicly forgave his son and stood by him as he was sentenced to death.

Since the sentencing, Whitaker has worked to spare his son’s life, exhausting the available appeals while continuing to proclaim, as he explained to The Washington Post this month, that his son’s execution would not be what his slain wife, Tricia, and other son, Kevin, would want.

“I know they would not want Bart’s life taken for this. They would be horrified at what’s happening,” Whitaker said. “This isn’t just a case of a dad who is ignoring the truth about his son. Believe me, I’m aware of what his choices have cost me.”

A Texas man vowed to forgive whoever killed most of his family. Then he learned it was his son.

With Bart’s execution scheduled for Feb. 22, the Whitakers’ final option was an appeal to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the seven-member panel tasked with recommending commutations to Gov. Greg Abbott.

On Tuesday, the board announced it had made the unanimous decision to recommend the death sentence be commuted, the Associated Press reported. The decision now rests with Abbott, who can either accept the board’s recommendation, move ahead with Thursday’s execution or do nothing. The governor has not indicated how he will proceed.

“I think the most important thing is both I and my staff have the opportunity to evaluate all the facts, all the circumstances, all the law, and base our decision on all of that information,” Abbott said late Tuesday.

In the meantime, the family awaits the decision.

“I don’t know why Abbott would not go along with this,” Keith Hampton, one of Whitaker’s lawyers, told the AP. “The clock’s ticking. I’m just waiting.”

The board’s decision on the Whitaker case is rare. According to the AP, since Texas resumed the death penalty in 1982, the board has issued only four such clemency recommendations. In two of those instances, then-Gov. Rick Perry rejected the board’s decision and the executions proceeded.

The Whitaker case is also again stirring controversy. Fred Felcman, one of the prosecutors on the original murder case, has stood by the state’s decision to pursue capital punishment in Bart’s case.

“I guess the 12 jurors’ opinion means nothing to the parole board,” Felcman told the AP, adding that the clemency request would be “a total injustice.”

This week, a former juror on Bart’s case also echoed support for the execution in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

“We tried to find a way to not kill the guy as a jury,” the juror said. “We tried really hard to follow the law — the law said he needed to be a continuing danger to society and we finally decided that he was because his method of killing was to get other people to kill for him. If he could convince college kids to kill for him, what would prevent him from getting other inmates to do it?”

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