U.S. Markets closed

Texas governor issues last-minute reprieve for son who ordered family killed

Sébastien BLANC

Washington (AFP) - Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday issued a last-minute reprieve for a death row prisoner who hired a gunman to kill his family after his father, whom he sought to murder, pleaded for his son's life.

Thomas Bartlett "Bart" Whitaker, 38, had been one of three men awaiting execution Thursday in three different US states.

Another, Eric Branch, was executed as scheduled in Florida for the 1993 murder of a student.

In a proclamation explaining his decision on Whitaker, Abbott wrote that the prisoner "must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime."

The governor said he had taken into consideration the fact that "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."

He added: "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."

- 'Thankful' -

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice later issued a statement quoting Whitaker's reaction to the news.

"I'm thankful for this decision, not for me but for my Dad," he said. "Whatever punishment I might have received or will receive will be just.

"I deserve any punishment for my crimes, but my Dad did nothing wrong. The system worked for him today, and I will do my best to uphold my end of the bargain."

Kent Whitaker had moved heaven and earth for years to try to get mercy for his son, whom he forgave from his hospital bed.

Bart Whitaker was sentenced to death for hiring the hitman who killed his mother and brother and wounded his father in 2003. The gunman also shot him in the arm to provide a cover story for the family slaying.

Police had originally assumed the shooting was a botched robbery, although the fact that only Bart's cell phone had been taken raised suspicions.

Bart returned to live with his wounded father for seven months before it emerged that it was the son who hired the gunman.

Kent, a devout Christian, said he had initially been "mad at God" after being shot in the thorax by the masked assailant who took the lives of his wife Tricia, 51, and his 19-year-old son Kevin.

"I was wrestling with my faith," he said. "But God met me in the hospital room on the night of the shootings and helped me arrive at a 'miracle' forgiveness for everyone involved."

"I live with the extent of the loss every day and am aware of how much it has cost me -- and am completely aware that all of that loss was the result of decisions made by my son," he said.

- Executing a dying man -

"But God helped me reach that complete forgiveness and I think He did that to help me rebuild my relationship with my son."

Meanwhile, officials in Florida executed Eric Branch for murdering a student in 1993.

The Florida Department of Corrections said he was visited by his daughter in the morning.

His lawyers had launched final appeals based on the fact Branch was only 21 years old -- and therefore, they say, cognitively comparable to a juvenile -- at the time of his conviction, nor was he sentenced to death by a unanimous jury.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, Doyle Hamm was facing execution after spending three decades on death row. He was condemned to death in 1987 for the murder of a motel employee during an armed robbery.

Hamm is already dying of cranial and lymphatic cancer, and his lawyers fear execution by lethal injection would be torture, as he no longer has suitable veins.

However, after a bitter legal battle, a court finally ruled on Tuesday that Hamm's execution will go ahead, on condition that he is injected in his legs or feet -- instead of his arms or hands, as would usually be the case.

The Supreme Court issued a stay to halt the execution at 6 pm (2300 GMT), while it considers a last-minute appeal.

In recent times, the highest number of executions in a single day occurred on December 9, 1999, when Oklahoma, Indiana, Texas and Virginia all executed a prisoner.

But the highest number ever was on December 6, 1862 in Minnesota, when federal authorities hanged 38 members of the Dakota people, a Native American tribe.