(CN) — An hour before the scheduled execution Thursday night, Texas Governor Greg Abbott commuted the sentence of a man convicted of killing his mother and brother — at the request of the man’s father, who also was shot but survived.
Thomas Whitaker, 38, orchestrated the shootings of his family as they returned to their suburban Houston home on Dec. 10, 2003 after eating dinner to celebrate Whitaker’s college graduation — though he actually had not graduated.
Whitaker’s roommate, Chris Brashear, also shot Whitaker’s father Kent in the chest. He survived and unsuccessfully lobbied for a life sentence for his son, whom a Fort Bend County jury sentenced to death in 2007.
Brasher pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2035. The getaway driver, the Whitakers’ neighbor Steve Champagne, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a plea deal.
Kent Whitaker said he forgave his son and asked the parole board and governor to spare the last member of his immediate family. On Tuesday, the seven-member parole board unanimously recommended that Abbott grant Whitaker clemency.
“I have seen enough death,” Whitaker told the Houston Chronicle before the parole board voted to spare his son’s life. “I don’t want to see any more. I’m going to have the last living member of my direct family taken from me by the State of Texas in the name of justice, and I just don’t want that.”
Texas has executed far more people than any other state since 1976: 548, compared to second-place Virginia’s 113.
The Texas parole board last recommended the reduction of a death sentence to life in prison in 2009. The last clemency order signed by a Texas governor was in 2007 by Abbott’s predecessor Rick Perry, now the U.S. Secretary of Energy.
Perry rejected two other clemency recommendations from the board during his tenure as governor from December 2000 to January 2015.
Abbott said he commuted the sentence for several reasons: the shooter, Brashear, was not sentenced to death; Whitaker’s father opposed the execution and Whitaker has agreed not to seek parole.
Abbott is a former Texas Supreme Court judge, and supported the executions of numerous inmates while serving as the state’s attorney general for 13 years, before he was elected governor and took office in January 2015.
“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.
Whitaker already had eaten what was to be his last meal when the commutation arrived.