Texas Death Penalty Case – Will the Governor Grant Clemency?

Will Texas Governor Greg Abbott Grant Thomas “Bart” Whitaker Clemency in Death Penalty Case?

UPDATE FEB. 23, 2018 – Texas Governor Greg Abbott Grants Thomas “Bart” Whitaker Clemency in Death Penalty Case.

With no word from the Governor’s office all day, preparations for Bart Whitaker’s execution proceeded as scheduled yesterday. Mr. Whitaker was transferred to Huntsville, Texas, where the execution would be carried out.

Attorney Daniel Lazarine

Mr. Whitaker was provided the ritualistic “last meal” of his choice – in this case, Chicken Enchiladas, rice, and beans. He was allowed one last visit with his  father.

Then, with less than an hour left before his execution, Governor Abbott announced his decision to grant clemency to Mr. Whitaker, and Governor Abbott commuted his sentence from the death penalty to life in prison without parole.

This is the first time in over 10 years that a Texas governor has spared a death row inmate’s life in this manner. Governor Abbott concurred with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles – members of which are appointed by the governor himself – and granted clemency to Mr. Whitaker.

What Does This Mean?

The effect is that the sentence of death assessed by a fort bend county jury over 10 years ago has been reduced to life in prison without parole.

Mr. Whitaker is still guilty of capital murder – his conviction remains – but his death sentence has been erased and he cannot in the future be re-sentenced to death again. Mr. Whitaker will spend the rest of his life behind bars as by law he is not eligible for release onto parole.

In his press release, the Governor cited several reasons for his decision. For example, the person who actually fired the shots that injured Kent Whitaker (Bart’s father) and murdered his wife and other son did not receive the death penalty.

The Governor also expressed concern that Bart Whitaker’s death sentence would also re-victimize Kent Whitaker, who is adamantly opposed to the death sentence.

Does this action signify a shift in the Governor’s attitude towards clemency petitions and, more specifically, those applications that are forwarded to his desk with the approval of his Board of Pardons and Paroles? Only time will tell.

All eyes are on Texas Governor Greg Abbott as he weighs the recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that he grant clemency in one of the State’s notorious capital cases. Thomas Bartlett Whitaker was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for being the mastermind behind a plot to kill his entire family.

Although Bart himself did not pull the trigger, he planned the murders and recruited others to carry out the plot.

Bart was not immediately a suspect because he, too, was shot in order to give the impression that he was a victim.

Once the investigation turned to Bart himself, he fled to Mexico but was eventually located and extradited to Texas for trial. The Whitaker case has received a lot of press because Bart’s dad Kent survived the attack which left two other family members dead, and has continually pleaded and begged for Bart’s life to be spared.

Clemency in Texas

In Texas, the governor has the ability to grant “clemency” in all criminal cases (except treason and impeachment) if recommended by a majority of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The governor’s authority to do so is found in Article IV, Section 11 of the Texas Constitution.

Clemency may include a variety of remedies; for example, a full pardon after a criminal conviction or successful completion of a term of deferred adjudication, a conditional pardon, or a sentence commutation. In capital cases, clemency may also include a reprieve for execution.

The Clemency Process

An individual must submit an application to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The application must strictly comply with requirements set out by the Board and include all required documents.

The Board then evaluates the application and makes its recommendation to the Governor. The final decision rests with the Governor.


In 2016, the Board received 62 non-capital applications for clemency.

The Board recommended that the Governor grant 23 of those clemency requests.

The Board also considered 16 applications requesting a sentence commutation from the death penalty to life in prison without parole but the Board did not recommend clemency for any of those applications.

Similarly, from the years 2012-2015, the Board considered between 9 and 19 applications for sentence commutations in capital cases per year and did not recommend clemency in any of those applications.

Governor Action

death row pardon texasTraditionally, Texas Governors have issued approximately a handful of pardons around the holiday season of each year.

In 2015, Governor Abbott’s first full year as the Texas Governor, he granted four pardons.

In 2016, Governor Abbott pardoned five Texas. Four of the five were pardoned for relatively minor misdemeanor offenses. The remaining pardon was for the felony offense of forgery. None of those pardoned in 2016 went to prison nor did any of them serve any significant county jail time.

The governor typically grants only a fraction of those cases where the Board recommends clemency.

In nearly ten years as governor, Rick Perry granted clemency and commuted a sentence of death to life in prison without the possibility of parole only one time.

What Will Governor Abbott Do?

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker is scheduled for execution on February 22, 2018. The Governor is reportedly reviewing the recommendation from the Board as well as the circumstances surrounding this disturbing case.

A last-minute decision is expected from the Governor’s office.

If Governor Abbott grants clemency, it will be the first time since 2007 that a Texas death row inmate’s sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.

For what it’s worth, the death row inmate who was granted clemency in 2007 was not the shooter either – he was the getaway driver who was convicted and sentenced to death under the “law of parties” found in Texas jurisprudence.