HUNTSVILLE, Texas - A Sugar Land father says his prayers were answered; after years of working to save his son from death row, it finally paid off.
Bart Whitaker was just 40 minutes from being executed Thursday night for the 2003 deaths of his mother and younger brother, before Governor Abbott stepped in.
Abbott cited three reasons for his decision: First, Whitaker will never be released. Second, the actual shooter in this case didn't get the death penalty. He got life in prison. Finally, Whitaker's father said he would be victimized again if the state executed his son.
"It was over-powering," said Kent Whitaker, on learning his son's sentence was changed to life in prison.
Whitaker says he was in a hospitality home provided by a local church in Huntsville when he got the news. He said he was praying when his phone rang. It was one of his attorneys saying the Governor commuted Bart's sentence.
Earlier in the day, the father had traveled with his wife Tanya up to the Polunsky Unit, where death row inmates are housed in Livingston. He didn't know if that meeting would be his last.
"We touched hands through the glass and we said our goodbyes," said Whitaker. "This has been such an emotional thing"
Then, 40 minutes before the execution came a proclamation from Governor Abbott:
"The role of the Governor is not to second-guess the court process or re-evaluate the law and the evidence."
The proclamation went on to say that Abbott's role is instead to consider the unanimous vote for life in prison from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
A T.D.C.J. spokesman shared Bart Whitaker's reaction:
"I'm thankful for this decision, not for me but for my dad. Whatever punishment I might have received or will receive will be just. I deserve any punishment for my crimes but my dad did nothing wrong. The system worked for him today and I will do my best to uphold my end of the bargain."
"I'm humbled by all of it," said Kent, on hearing his son's words for the first time.
A father, who even though his son tried to kill him, never stopped fighting for the life of his son.
"This wasn't business as usual, there was more to this story than just the trial, and we are so very, very grateful," said Kent.
KHOU 11 talked to several members of the Fort Bend County jury who sentenced Bart to death in 2007.
One woman who asked us not to identify her for security reasons said she thinks the jury's decision should stand. "Even from a jail cell, because of his method of killing, he convinced others to kill for him, he was a danger to society. He was a master manipulator."
Another juror who also asked not to be identified said he'd changed his views since the trial. "It wouldn't bother me if they gave him life."
Former Sugar Land Detective Marshall Slot, who worked the case, also weighed in saying he opposed clemency. "A jury who heard all the facts and heard the father's plea still recommended the death penalty."
Bart Whitaker will now be re-assigned to a new unit, away from death row. He'll undergo physical and mental screenings to determine where he will be placed.
"One of the blessings that is going to come from this, for me, is that as time goes by perhaps (Bart) will earn the privilege of having an open visit where I'll be able to actually hug him and shake his hand. And that hasn't happened since June of 2004; so I'm really looking forward to that." said Kent Whitaker.