Man who plotted his family's murder will not be executed, governor says
The governor of Texas decided today to spare the life of a convicted killer who
carried out a plot to kill his parents and his brother.
About 40 minutes before the scheduled execution, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
announced he would grant clemency to 38-year-old Thomas "Bart" Whitaker. The
Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a rare recommendation, voted unanimously
Tuesday in favor of the "lesser penalty" of commuting Whitaker's death sentence
to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
“In just over three years as governor, I have allowed 30 executions. I have not
granted a commutation of a death sentence until now," Abbott said in a
statement. “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."
Bart Whitaker was convicted of capital murder for the shooting deaths of his
mother, Tricia Whitaker, and his younger brother, Kevin Whitaker, in an attack
he devised at the family's Sugar Land, Texas, home in December 2003. Bart's
father, Kent Whitaker, was also shot during the attack, but survived.
Kent Whitaker said he has forgiven his son and became his most outspoken
"I love him. He's my son," Kent Whitaker told "20/20." "I don't want to see him
executed at the hands of Texas in the name of justice when there's a better
On Tuesday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a rare recommendation,
voted unanimously in favor of the "lesser penalty" of commuting Whitaker's
death sentence to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman, who was also the original prosecutor in the case, told
ABC's Houston station KTRK on Tuesday that he was disappointed by the parole
"I guess the 12 jurors' opinion means nothing to the parole board," Felcman
"20/20" sat down with Kent Whitaker awhile he awaited the board’s decision on
his son’s fate. He said that Bart has learned Spanish in prison and was
teaching some inmates English, while helping others earn their high school
"I have seen such change in him," Kent Whitaker said of his son. "He's been
incarcerated for 11 years. That's 4,000 days. He's done a lot of work himself
and he's struggled hard to try to find out what it was that went wrong in his
"There's a mental illness issue here that we still don't quite understand," the
father added. "But he has learned how to recognize the danger points and to
work around them. I want the opportunity to spend years watching him grow. And
there's so much that he can do."
Kent Whitaker said he recognizes the horrible crime his son committed, saying,
"I live with it every day... and nobody's denying it."
"Forgiveness is absolutely critical if you want to heal from your loss," he
continued. "It is the only way that you can get the bitterness out, and the
bitterness is going to stay there and it's going to affect your relationships
in ways that you can't even see or recognize. But it's going to negatively
affect them. I was able to forgive on the night of the shootings."
On Dec. 10, 2003, Bart Whitaker announced to his family that he had finished
his final exams at Sam Houston State University and would be graduating. To
honor his achievement, his parents presented him with a Rolex watch. That
night, the family went to a popular Cajun restaurant to celebrate.
Photos taken from that night show Bart smiling for the camera, but he told
"20/20" in a 2009 interview that he knew at that moment that an intruder had
entered their home and was waiting for their return. If everything went
according to his plan, his brother, mother and father would all be dead within
"I don't really know a better term for how I was feeling [that night], other
than I was on auto-pilot. I wasn't even aware of myself," Bart Whitaker told
"20/20" in 2009.
"I wanted them dead," he added. "It was my idea."
When the family arrived home, Bart, knowing what awaited his family inside, ran
down the driveway, saying he needed to grab his cell phone out of his car.
Kevin Whitaker, 19, was the first one to open the door and was shot in the
chest, then his mother followed and was also shot.
Next, his father was wounded, too -- he was shot through the right chest and
arm, breaking his humerus bone.
Bart said he then ran into the house and pretended to try and catch the
shooter. They wrestled a bit and then Bart was shot in the arm to make him
appear to be a victim.
"It was to distance me from the guilt," he told "20/20" in 2009. "But also I
think on an internal level it was me realizing that there was no way that I
could come out of this physically unscathed."
Kevin and Tricia both died from their gunshot wounds. Kent and Bart both
survived. Investigators would later discover that Bart had never graduated Sam
Houston State University and was still listed as a freshman on academic
When they were released from the hospital, Bart moved back home to be with his
father, where they spent time together reading the Bible.
The investigation made little progress, until a man named Adam Hipp walked into
the Sugar Land police station and introduced himself as a former friend of Bart
Whitaker's. Hipp told police Bart had hatched a second, previously unknown
murder plot that was aborted at the last minute, but Hipp claimed Whitaker had
asked him to be the shooter.
Another break in the case came in August 2005, when a man named Steven
Champagne, who was Bart’s former co-worker and neighbor, went to police and
confessed to assisting in the crime and provided the entire story of what
happened on that December 2003 night.
Champagne told investigators that Bart had set up the crime and lured his
family to dinner to celebrate his fake graduation from college. As the
Whitakers celebrated, Champagne said he watched from a car in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, Bart's roommate, Chris Brashear, hid in Bart's SUV outside the
Whitaker home. Champagne told police Brashear entered the house with the key
and disabled the alarm with the code Bart had given him. Champagne said he
followed the family home and parked on a nearby street and waited.
"[Brashear] said Bart's brother had walked in first," Champagne recalled in his
confession. "And, when Chris shot him, he said before he shot him he thought he
smiled. And then Chris shot his mom and then shot Bart's dad .... And then, he
acted like he wrestled around with Bart and shot Bart."
A minute later, as he told cops, Brashear joined him in the car and they fled
"Bart said his family was worth a lot of money," Champagne said, explaining his
motivation. "He said he would give us some money -- I mean millions of
He also told police that he and Brashear had thrown a bag full of evidence off
of a bridge into a nearby lake. A police dive team later found a soggy duffel
bag full of decomposing evidence. Though the bag had spent two years at the
bottom of the lake, detectives were able to obtain a DNA profile of Brashear on
the mouth of a water bottle. The bag also contained Bart Whitaker’s cell phone.
In March 2007, a jury convicted Bart Whitaker of the capital murder of his
mother and his younger brother, and he was sentenced to death. The shooter,
Brashear, received life in prison without parole. The getaway driver,
Champagne, was sentenced to 15 years for his role in the plot.
Since then, Kent Whitaker has gotten remarried and has devoted his time to
spreading his message of forgiveness as well as fighting to prevent his son’s
execution. Kent wrote a book, "Murder by Family," in which he tracks the pain,
tears and faith that carried him through it all.
"I think that justice would be the opportunity to spend his life helping others
and allowing me the opportunity to walk that road with him," Kent Whitaker
*source: ABC News)
Man yelled "murderers" and thrashed on gurney during execution
A Florida inmate convicted of raping and killing a college student decades ago
screamed and yelled "murderers!" 3 times, thrashing on a gurney as he was being
put to death Thursday. The governor's office said Eric Scott Branch, 47, was
pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. Thursday after receiving a lethal injection at
Florida State Prison.
Branch was convicted of the 1993 rape and fatal beating of University of West
Florida student Susan Morris, 21, whose naked body was found buried in a
shallow grave near a nature trail.
Just as officials were administering the lethal drugs that included a powerful
sedative, Branch let out a loud, blood-curdling scream, thrashed about on his
gurney and then yelled "murderers! murderers! murderers" before falling silent
with a guttural groan.
Moments earlier, he had addressed the corrections officers in the room with him
by saying that, instead of them carrying out the death sentence, it should have
been Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, both Republicans.
"Let them come down here and do it. I've learned that you're good people and
this is not what you should be doing," Branch told the officers.
Asked whether Branch's scream could have been caused by the execution drugs,
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said afterward that "there
was no indication" that the scream was cause by the lethal injection procedure.
She said that conclusion had been confirmed by the Florida Department of Law
After Thursday's execution, the Morris family issued a statement saying they
are still mourning the victim's death a quarter century ago.
"25 years ago, Susan's life was suddenly and brutally extinguished. We have
grieved for her longer that she was with us. Yet because of who she was ... she
will never be forgotten by those who love her," said the statement read out by
the victim's sister, Wendy Morris Hill.
Outside the prison, Herman Lindsey joined anti-death penalty protesters.
Lindsey, a former death row inmate who was exonerated in 2009, said he wants to
see the practice abolished.
"There's no way to guarantee we're not killing innocent people," he said.
Evidence in the case shows that Branch approached Morris after she left a night
class on Jan. 11, 1993, so he could steal her red Toyota and return to his home
state of Indiana. He was arrested while traveling there.
In denying one of Branch's appeals, the Florida Supreme Court noted that the
crime was particularly brutal.
"She had been beaten, stomped, sexually assaulted and strangled. She bore
numerous bruises and lacerations, both eyes were swollen shut," the justices
Branch also was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Indiana
and of another sexual assault in Panama City, Florida, that took place just 10
days before the fatal attack on Morris, court records show.
The jury in his murder case recommended the death penalty by a 10-2 vote under
Florida's old capital punishment system, which was ruled unconstitutional by
the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. The high court said juries must reach a
unanimous recommendation for death and judges cannot overrule that. Florida
legislators subsequently changed the system to comply.
One of Branch's final appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court involved whether he
deserved a new sentencing hearing because of that jury's 10-2 vote in his 1994
trial. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the new system of sentencing
does not apply to inmates sentenced to death before 2002.
Branch claimed in a last-minute appeal that the Florida court's decisions on
which inmates get new sentencing hearings and which do not is unfair and
arbitrary. In court documents, Branch's lawyers say this prohibits about 150
Florida death-row inmates from having their sentences reviewed.
The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, rejected that appeal Thursday and one
other Branch's attorneys had filed.
The Florida Supreme Court had denied a stay of execution in the Branch case on
Feb. 6, leaving him with only limited appeals in federal courts.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Michelle Glady said Branch had been visited
by his daughter Thursday morning and refused a meeting with a spiritual
Elsewhere, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott spared the life Thursday of a convicted
killer shortly before the man's scheduled execution for masterminding the fatal
shootings of his mother and brother.
In sparing the life of Thomas "Bart" Whitaker about an hour before he was
scheduled for lethal injection, Abbott accepted the state parole board's rare
clemency recommendation. Whitaker's father, Kent, also was shot in the 2003
plot at the family's suburban Houston home but survived and led the effort to
save his son from execution. Abbott commuted the sentence to life without
In Alabama, Doyle Lee Hamm was sentenced to die Thursday evening for the 1987
death of a motel clerk during a robbery. But Hamm fought his death sentence,
arguing there was a risk of a botched execution because of damage to his veins
due to lymphoma and other illnesses. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday evening
temporarily delayed the lethal injection procedure as it considered his request
for a permanent stay.
Branch becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Florida
and the 96th overall since the state resumed capital punishment in
1979. Only Texas (547) Virginia (113) and Oklahoma (112) have executed more
condemned inmates since the death penalty was re-legalized in the USA on July
Brance becomes the 4th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA
and the 1469th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.
(sources: CBS News & Rick Halperin
Supreme Court delays execution of motel clerk killer in Alabama
The U.S. Supreme Court has delayed the lethal injection of an Alabama inmate as
it considers his request to block the execution.
Justices issued the temporary stay at 6 p.m. Thursday, the same time that Doyle
Lee Hamm was scheduled to be executed. The court will decide later whether to
let the execution proceed Thursday evening.
Hamm's attorney argued that lymphoma and past drug use have damaged his veins
too much for a lethal injection. Alabama prison officials have told the courts
that they plan to connect the intravenous line to usable veins in Hamm's lower
Hamm was convicted in the 1987 killing of motel clerk Patrick Cunningham.
(source: Associated Press)
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