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

Sébastien BLANC
For years, Kent Whitaker (L) had moved heaven and earth to try and get mercy for his son Bart Whitaker (R), despite Bart's attempt on his life (AFP Photo/FAMILY HANDOUT)

Washington (AFP) - Two death row inmates have won last minute reprieves, including a man whose father pleaded for his life even though his son had hired a hitman to kill his family, officials say.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued the rare reprieve for Thomas Bartlett "Bart" Whitaker, 38, who had been sentenced to die Thursday for a 2003 murder-for-hire that took his mother and brother's life and left his father seriously wounded.

"Mr Whitaker must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime," Abbott wrote in a proclamation explaining his decision, shortly before the scheduled execution.

Meanwhile, convicted murderer Eric Branch was executed on schedule in Florida, but in Alabama an attempt to administer a lethal injection to another death row inmate, Doyle Hamm, failed, causing that execution to be halted.

In commuting Whitaker's death sentence, Abbott 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."

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

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 the truth 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.

- Alabama execution halted -

"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," he said.

"Long before I ever even suspected that that forgiveness might extend to my own son."

"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.

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

Meanwhile, in Alabama, a state penitentiary system spokesman said Hamm's execution was suspended "out of an abundance of caution" because a vein could not be found that would take the lethal injection.

Hamm was already dying of cranial and lymphatic cancer, and his lawyers had argued that he no longer had suitable veins and that a lethal injection would be torture.

"This is exactly what I have been saying since July. Since July, I have been telling the state of Alabama that Doyle Lee Hamm does not have adequate veins for a lethal injection," Hamm's lawyer, Bernard Harcourt, said.

The US Supreme Court had ruled late Thursday that the execution could proceed.

Hamm, who has spent three decades on death row, was condemned to death in 1987 for the murder of a motel employee during an armed robbery.

In Florida, Eric Branch, who was convicted of the 1993 murder of a student, was put to death at 7:05 pm Thursday (0005 GMT Friday) after last minute appeals were exhausted.

His lawyers had argued that Branch, 21 at the time of the murder, was cognitively comparable to a juvenile and that the jury was not unanimous in sentencing him to death.

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.