In 2003, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker plotted the murder of his family. He hired two men to shoot and kill his mother, Tricia, younger brother, Kevin, and father, Kent. His mother and brother were killed in the shooting. His father, however, survived.
Bart’s trial took place in March 2007. In court, prosecutors argued that Whitaker was the leading man in the conspiracy to end his family members’ lives. He was given the death penalty.
Since the incident occurred, Kent, Bart’s father, has forgiven his son. He tells 20/20, “I love him. He’s my son. I don’t want to see him executed at the hands of Texas in the name of justice when there’s a better justice available.”
Read on to learn more about Bart Whitaker.
1. He Says “I Wasn’t Even Aware of Myself” About the Night He Hired Two Men to Kill His Family
On December 10, 2003, Bart and his family went to a popular restaurant to celebrate Bart’s graduation from Sam Houston State University. Little did his family know, Bart had not only not graduated, but he had hired a hitman, who was waiting at the house for the Whitaker’s to return from dinner.
Bart’s brother Kevin entered the family home first and was shot, followed by his mother, Patricia, and father, Kent, who survived. Bart tells ABC that when he entered the house, he “pretended to try and catch the shooter.” Bart was even shot in the arm so he could appear to be a victim.
In a 2009 interview with 20/20, Bart said, “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. I wanted them dead. It was my idea.”
It wasn’t until two years later that police put the pieces together and learned that Bart was the man responsible for his mother’s and brother’s deaths.
2. He Was Granted Clemency 40 Minutes Before His Scheduled Execution
On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he would grant clemency to Bart just 40 minutes before his scheduled execution.
ABC reports that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously that Bart’s sentence would be commuted to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
In a statement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cited the “complex” nature of the situation and why he arrived at his decision decision. He referenced Mr. Whitaker’s father “who survived the attempt on his life [and] passionately opposes the execution of his son.”
Kent, now his son’s biggest advocate, tells ABC that he has seen his son change over the past 11 years that he’s been in prison. He says he’s learned Spanish in prison and is helping some inmates learn English and their high school diplomas. In 2013, he also received his undergraduate degree.
“I have seen such change in him,” Kent Whitaker said. “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 mind.”
3. Bart Says He Loved His Family
In an interview with Lisa Ling, who visited Bart to talk to him about what he’d done, Bart was asked if he loved his family.
Lisa: Did you love your family? Did you love your brother, Kevin?
Bart: Yeah, absolutely. I was envious. He had so many of the qualities that I tried so hard for over the years.
Lisa: So you loved them but also hated them at the same time.
Bart: Yeah, we humans are kind of like that sometimes.
Bart goes to tell Ling that his anger with his family didn’t turn into “outright hatred” until high school. He says he started to feel like a failure, and he blamed them for the way he felt. “It wasn’t something that I decided one day. I… wanted my life to be different… I wanted revenge for being alive.”
4. Steve Champagne &Amp; Chris Brashear Were Bart’s Accomplices
Steve Champagne was Bart’s co-worker and neighbor. Chris Brashear was Bart’s roommate.
In 2005, two years after the murder, Champagne went to police and confessed to assisting in the murders. He revealed that the plan that evening back in December 2003 was for him to watch the Whitakers eat from his car in the restaurant parking lot. Meanwhile, Bart’s other accomplice, Chris Brashear, hid in Bart’s SUV outside the home.
When he knew they were headed back to the house, Brashear entered the home using the security code Bart had given him. Champagne watched from a nearby street. Not long after the gunshots went off, Brashear hopped in Champagne’s car and they sped off.
Why do it? Champagne tells ABC, “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 dollars.”
Chris Brashear was given a life sentence in a plea bargain. Champagne agreed to testify for the prosecution, and in return received a 15-year sentence.
5. Kent Forgives His Son for What He Did
Speaking candidly with ABC’s 20/20, Kent says, “Forgiveness is absolutely critical if you want to heal from your loss. 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.”
Speaking on OWN in 2014, Kent says his relationship with Bart is much better now than it has been in the past. He visits Bart once a week, for a two-hour session. “He has become much more open and honest with me about his failures and losses.”
Kent has since remarried. He met his wife, Tanya, through a mutual friend. The couple spends their life traveling the country and speaking about the power of forgiveness.