Texas man vowed to forgive whoever killed most of his family; then he learned
it was his son
Rage and faith warred inside Kent Whitaker as he lay in a hospital bed with a
9mm bullet hole 6 inches from his heart. It was December 2003, and the pillars
of the Houston-area man's life had just been ripped down.
A husband of 28 years, he was now a widower. Of his 2 college-age sons, 1 was
dead and the other was recovering from a gunshot wound. A man of faith, he was
burning at God for letting tragedy strike.
His anger tightened specifically around the unknown shooter who had ambushed
the 4 as they came home from a family dinner. "All I could feel for this person
was an incredibly deep and powerful hatred," Kent told The Washington Post this
week. "Just thinking about how I could inflict pain on him."
But Bible verses also pushed into Kent's thoughts. "And we know that in all
things God works for the good of those who love him," he recalled. "Vengeance
is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
Although the settlement brings closure, families said they still are searching
Revenge was a dark path he did not want to step down, Kent realized, so he
resolved to forgive the shooter. Lying in the hospital bed, it seemed
impossible. But he would do it. No matter who it turned out to be.
"As soon as that happened, there was a warm glow that flowed over me," Kent
said. "It took the fire out of me."
What Whitaker didn't realize then was that the man he would have to forgive was
his surviving son, Thomas "Bart" Whitaker.
In the spring of 2007, Bart was convicted of orchestrating, along with two
accomplices, the murders of his mother, Tricia, 51, and younger brother, Kevin,
19. During the attack, Bart was purposely shot in the arm as a way of diverting
Jurors sentenced him to death. Throughout the appeals, however, Kent has stayed
by his son's side -- and remains there today, as the state prepares for Bart's
Feb. 22 execution.
With time running short, the Whitakers have filed a request with Texas Board of
Pardons and Paroles to recommend a sentence commutation, to life in prison, to
Gov. Greg Abbott. Kent's forgiveness is the bedrock of the petition. The
board's role is to provide a check on the justice system when it fails, Kent
said this week. His son's sentence was flawed because no one -- neither Kent
nor Tricia's family -- pushed for his execution.
"I feel the whole decision to pursue the death penalty was an overstep," Kent
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."
The Whitakers' last-shot appeal is framed by a dramatic debate working through
courtrooms across the country, the same issue spotlighted by the recent
sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar. When more than 160 abuse survivors marched
into a Michigan courtroom to testify about the fallout from the disgraced USA
Gymnastics doctor's abuse, it amplified the power of victim's' participation in
the legal system. Kent's appeal channels the same question: How can justice be
served if victims are not involved in the process?
"Texas claims to be a victims' rights state. It's something we're proud of,"
Whitaker told The Post. "I'm asking for the board to recognize victims' rights
means something even when the victim is asking for mercy, not just when they
are asking for vengeance."
Although investigators initially thought the Dec. 10, 2003, shooting was the
work of a burglar interrupted in the middle of a break-in, clues began pointing
elsewhere. Drawers were pulled out in the house, consistent with a break-in,
but the contents of the drawers were still neatly organized, not ransacked.
Also, the only item missing from the house was Bart's mobile phone. Why leave
everything else except a phone?
Also, on the night of the murders, Bart had invited the family out to dinner
because he wanted to celebrate his upcoming college graduation. But police
learned Bart was not about to graduate college. He wasn't even enrolled in
school, a fact he had kept hidden from his parents.
For 7 months after the shooting, Bart lived at home with his father. Police
told Kent his son was a suspect and warned he still could be in danger.
"He continued to deny it, and the police continued to say he was their
suspect," Kent told The Post. "I didn't know who was telling the truth. I told
the police, 'If I see something, I'm going to tell you. But I'm not going to
abandon my son. I'm going to stand with him through all of this even if he's
Police found their strongest lead when a former roommate of Bart's came forward
and said the 2 had plotted earlier to kill the Whitakers. Investigators
recorded a phone conversation between the 2. Although Bart said nothing
specific about the killings, he did agree to pay the roommate $20,000. Then he
disappeared, running to Mexico in July 2004.
While Bart was on the lam, police learned two friends, Christopher Brashear and
Steven Champagne, had plotted with Bart in the crime. Champagne admitted to
being the getaway driver and told police Brashear had pulled the trigger.
In September 2005, Bart was arrested and brought back to Texas. Kent went to
see his son in custody.
"The very first thing he told me as we were facing each other through the glass
was, 'Dad, I don't know why this happened, but I'm going to do everything I can
to make it quick and as painless for everyone as possible.'"
Kent saw this as an indication that Bart was willing to plead guilty. But the
Fort Bend County district attorney refused to rule out the death penalty as
punishment. In the months leading up to the scheduled trial, Kent and other
members of the family, including his dead wife's relatives, met with
prosecutors. They urged no capital punishment.
"We met with them for about an hour," Kent told The Post. "At the conclusion,
the DA leaned over the table and asked, 'So Mr. Whitaker, you are asking me not
to pursue the death penalty?' I got out of my chair and down on my knees and
said, 'I'm begging you not to pursue the death penalty.'"
But the state proceeded with a capital case anyway, painting the defendant as a
remorseless sociopath who had manipulated his accomplices. They also argued
Bart was motivated by money, believing he would receive a $1 million
inheritance, the Austin American-Stateman reported.
Bart was convicted of 2 counts of 1st-degree murder and sentenced to die.
Brashear, the shooter, received life in prison. Champagne, the getaway driver,
was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Kent was left sifting through his relationship with his son for warning signs,
clues, indicators -- anything that could explain what had happened.
Before the murders, Bart and his father enjoyed long-distance bicycling. They
would go on 100-mile long-hauls, just the two of them. "You have a lot of
opportunity to talk, and we did," Kent told The Post. "We had a good
relationship. Also, Tricia and I both were active parents, we didn't ignore
Bart has also struggled to put his actions into context. "The 15-second
sound-bite answer is I wanted revenge for being alive and I blamed them for
that," he told "20/20" in 2009. "I blamed them for who I was instead of blaming
He continued: "In order for me to be that person that my parents would love or
that they did claim to love, I had to be better than I was. ... There was an
idealized version of me and then there was me. ... So every time I failed at
reaching that goal of mine, I felt like a failure."
He also added the plot with his two friends was "sort of like a game of chicken
between me and the other guys." Bart was waiting to see who would back out
before the final act. But no one did.
"I think he believed that who we were loving was a person who didn't exist,"
Kent said of his son. "He was hiding behind the mask so we wouldn't find out."
On death row, Bart, now 38, had been a model prisoner, his petition argues.
He's obtained a bachelor's degree by mail in English literature, and also is
close to finishing a master's degree from California State University; all he
needs is the school to sign off. "His thesis is in committee," Kent said. "It
probably won't be cleared until after Feb. 22, so it might be posthumous."
Kent continues to wait for word from the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Often, when people hear about his story, they ask whether fighting to keep his
son alive isn't in some way a betrayal of his wife and other son's memory. "I'm
honoring their memory," he said. "I know they would not want Bart's life taken
for this. They would be horrified at what's happening."
(source: Washington Post)
At least those on death row are still alive
Despite not being worthy of much sympathy, the 5 Pennsylvania death row inmates
who are suing prison officials over the issue of solitary confinement have, in
that federal court action, made a point that many people don't dispute.
That is that solitary confinement can expose prisoners to possible physical,
mental and emotional harm.
In the view of some law-abiding people, as well as the prisoners in question,
the fact that Pennsylvania death row prisoners are locked up alone for 22 to 24
hours each day, and that their small cells are kept illuminated at all hours,
represents cruel and unusual punishment - although cruelty, violence and
disregard for their victims' lives are what relegated the prisoners to their
The consolation for those on death row is that they're still alive, and even
permitted to have visitors, unlike the "solitary confinement" in which their
victims' remains exist.
1 of the 5 inmates pursuing the lawsuit has area ties: Mark Newton Spotz, 46, a
Clearfield County native, who received death sentences for killing 3 women in
1995 in Schuylkill, York and Cumberland counties.
In the 5 death row inmates' lawsuit, which names as defendants the state
Corrections secretary and the wardens at Greene and Graterford state prisons,
the inmates complain that they're kept segregated inside cells the size of a
parking space and that they are permitted to exercise only in small, outdoor
enclosures for no more than 2 hours during weekdays.
On weekends, the lawsuit says, they're kept in their cells around the clock,
unless they have a visitor.
Despite stated concerns, those conditions are appropriate for someone guilty of
1st-degree murder and supposedly awaiting execution.
If those inmates still value their own lives, they should feel a sense of
relief that they committed their horrific crimes in the Keystone State, rather
than in one of the states - like Texas - that have for years been aggressive in
carrying out the death penalty.
It's been about 18 years since Pennsylvania last executed a person for murder.
The 5 inmates' lawsuit is seeking class-action status as well as a declaration
that solitary confinement is inhumane, degrading and violates constitutional
protections against cruel and unusual punishment, and violates the guarantee of
They are contending that the state hasn't provided a meaningful way for them to
challenge the conditions of their incarceration.
Reasonable, law-abiding people aren't necessarily wrong in arguing that no
avenues for challenges should be available to them.
Meanwhile, some opponents of the death penalty - and even some supporters of it
- reasonably contend that the virtual "life sentence" Pennsylvania currently
extends to death row inmates actually is a more effective punishment than
lethal injection or any other method of execution, because the inmates continue
living the sentence that was meted out to them.
Death row isn't meant to be like a country club or recreation center.
Prisoners confined there shouldn't feel that they're worthy of any semblance of
a cushy existence.
That includes the 5 inmates at the center of the lawsuit.
(source: Editorial, Altoona Mirror)
Man accused in Eastman officer killing appears in court----Royheem Deeds makes
appearance in court
The man accused of killing Eastman police officer Tim Smith was in court Friday
Royheem Deeds was officially notified that the state is seeking the death
penalty against him.
The judge approved a motion filed by Deeds attorneys requesting that the media
not film him in shackles.
Deeds was wearing shackles and handcuffs and dressed in civilian clothes. He
didn't say anything in court, but he did glance back for a moment to look at
his family before leaving the courtroom.
The family of Officer Tim Smith was in court as well.
Neither family would comment.
Deeds will appear in court on March 8th, which is when he'll enter a plea of
guilty or not guilty.
(source: WMAZ TV news)
Jury selection begins in trial over the murder of 8-year-old Cherish
The man accused of the 2013 kidnapping, rape, and murder of 8-year-old Cherish
Perrywinkle is set to see trial.
Jury selection starts Monday morning for the case against Donald Smith. 300
prospective jurors have been summoned- which is more than an average murder
case- amid defense concerns about the ability to sit an impartial panel, given
the amount of attention this case has received.
Smith is accused of befriending Cherish's mother at a store and offering to
take the family to a Northside Walmart to buy clothes for the kids. While
there, he allegedly said he was going to get food at the front of the store,
and Cherish went with him. Instead of stopping at the front of the store,
police say Smith left with Cherish- her body was later found in a marshy area
near a church.
The case has taken some time to get to trial for varying reasons, including the
change in Florida's death penalty sentencing law. Prosecutors have said they
intend to seek the death penalty if Smith is convicted, so there was some legal
maneuvering when the US Supreme Court- and later the Florida Supreme Court-
ordered changes to the state's sentencing law, which have since been addressed.
The case resonated in the area not only because of the tragic circumstances,
but the changes that came as a result.
Several people within the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office were reprimanded
because of the initial response. The Communications Center initially questioned
whether this was a legitimate abduction for several reasons, including how they
characterized Cherish's mother's behavior. Even after it was classified as a
child abduction, procedures weren't followed to properly notify the media.
There were also issues raised on whether a more senior investigator should have
responded to the scene after communicating over the phone with a supervisor on
the scene, and whether that supervisor was overwhelmed with the work because of
the more limited manpower and oversight.
Despite the questions around the initial response, JSO quickly identified and
apprehended Smith through investigative work, including searching through the
sex offender registry. A community tip helped lead them to the location of
Cherish's body as well.
Even prior to this case, Smith had a criminal history that included trying to
lure children, and ultimately led to his registering as a sex offender. Most
recently, Smith posed as a Florida Department of Children and Families worker
in an effort to lure a young girl, and posed as a public employee in another
case as well. He was released from jail less than a month before Cherish's
abduction. Even beyond that, Smith has a conviction from the 90s for attempted
kidnapping of a child, and from the 70s for lewd and lascivious behavior on a
Smith's history put up red flags for Florida lawmakers. Following this tragedy,
the Northeast Florida delegation sought- and achieved- changes in sex offender
laws, with their stated goal to make the state have the "toughest laws" in the
country. Among the changes, Florida expanded the type of people eligible to be
evaluated for civil commitment and community control.
Documentation publicly available ahead of trial shows some of the state's
evidence includes Smith's DNA on Cherish, vegetation from where her body was
found also present with Smith, surveillance footage, witness statements, and
more. Case records further show that, during an early interview, Smith admitted
to having Cherish in his van, but claimed he let her out.
(source: WOKV news)
Supreme Court won't review case of Huntsville man on death row
The Supreme Court of the United States won't review the case of an inmate on
Alabama's death row.
The court announced in its weekly order list that they denied the writ of
certiorari, or request to review, the case of Jeffery Day Rieber. The court
didn't issue an opinion.
Rieber, 50, was convicted of capital murder during the course of a robbery for
the 1990 killing of Glenda Phillips Craig.
Craig, 25, worked at the Mobile Mart on Winchester Road in Huntsville. She was
a wife and mother.
According to court records, Craig was alive when she was found shot and lying
behind the store counter, but she died shortly after.
When Rieber was arrested, court records show, he told Huntsville police that he
did not visit the Mobile Mart on the day of the murder and robbery; however, a
customer at the store that day told police he knew Rieber from high school and
saw him there.
Another man told police he had seen Rieber in the parking lot of the Mobile
Mart a few days before the murder. He said Craig was uneasy about the man - who
police said was Rieber - and said she was afraid. Later, the man came back to
the store and saw Rieber patrolling the lot. The man told Craig she should call
Video surveillance from the store was also shown in court.
Records state the tape showed a man entering the mart at 7:55 p.m. on Oct. 9,
1990, and walking to the counter. On the video, a man shot Craig and she fell
to the floor. The man then reached over the counter and took money from the
register, before shooting wounded clerk again.
Rieber was convicted in 1992, and the jury recommended by a vote of 7 to 5 that
he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge
overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Rieber to death.
In April 2017, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that says juries have the
final say on whether to impose the death penalty in capital murder cases. This
law ended judicial override in Alabama, as it had been the only state to still
allow a judge to overrule a jury.
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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