Rage and faith were at war inside Kent Whitaker as he lay in a hospital bed with a 9mm bullet hole six inches from his heart.
It was December 2003, and the pillars of the Houston-area man's life had just been ripped down. A husband of 28 years, now he was a widower. A father of two college-age boys, one was dead while the other was recovering from his own gunshot wound. A man of faith, he was burning at God for letting tragedy strike.
His anger tightened specifically around the unknown shooter who had ambushed the four as they came home from a family dinner.
"All I could feel for this person was an incredibly deep and powerful hatred," Kent told The Washington Post this week. "Just thinking about how I could inflict pain on him."
But Bible verses also pushed into Kent's thoughts. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him," he recalled. "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." Revenge was a dark path he did not want to step down, Kent realized, so he resolved to forgive the shooter. Lying in the hospital bed, it seemed impossible. But he would do it. No matter who it turned out to be.
"As soon as that happened, there was a warm glow that flowed over me," Kent said. "It took the fire out of me."
What Whitaker didn't realize then was that the man he would have to forgive was his surviving son, Thomas "Bart" Whitaker.
In spring 2007, Bart was convicted of orchestrating along with two accomplices the murders of his mother, Tricia, 51, and younger brother, Kevin, 19. During the attack, Bart was purposely shot in the arm as a way of diverting suspicion. Jurors sentenced him to death. Throughout the appeals, however, Kent has stayed by his son's side — and remains there today, as the state prepares for Bart's Feb. 22 execution.
With time running short, the Whitakers have filed a request with Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend a sentence commutation, to life in prison, to Gov. Greg Abbott, R. Kent's forgiveness is the bedrock of the petition. The board's role is to provide a check on the justice system when it fails, Kent explained this week. His son's sentence was flawed because no one — neither Kent nor Tricia's family — pushed for his execution.
"I feel the whole decision to pursue the death penalty was an overstep," Kent said. "This isn't just a case of a dad who is ignoring the truth about his son. Believe me, I'm aware of what his choices have cost me."
The Whitaker's last-shot appeal is framed by a dramatic debate working through courtrooms across the country — the same issue spotlighted by the recent sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar. When more than 160 abuse survivors marched into a Michigan courtroom to testify about the fallout from the disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor's abuse, it amplified the power of victim's' participation in the legal system. Kent's appeal channels the same question: how can justice be served if victims are not involved in the process?
"Texas claims to be a victims' rights state, it's something we're proud of," Whitaker told The Post. "I'm asking for the board to recognize victims' rights means something even when the victim is asking for mercy, not just when they are asking for vengeance."
Although investigators initially believed the Dec. 10, 2003, shooting was the work of a burglar interrupted in the middle of a break-in, clues began pointing elsewhere. Drawers were pulled out in the house, consistent with a break-in — but the contents of the drawers were still neatly organized. They were not ransacked. Also, the only item missing from the house was Bart's cellphone. Why leave everything else except a cellphone?
Also, on the night of the murders, Bart had invited the family out to dinner because he wanted to celebrate his upcoming college graduation. But police learned Bart was not about to graduate college. He wasn't even enrolled in school — a fact he had kept hidden from his parents.
For seven months after the shooting, Bart lived at home with his father. Police told Kent his son was a suspect and warned he still could be in danger.
"He continued to deny it, and the police continued to say he was their suspect," Kent told The Post. "I didn't know who was telling the truth. I told the police, 'If I see something, I'm going to tell you. But I'm not going to abandon my son. I'm going to stand with him through all of this even if he's responsible.'"
Police found their strongest lead when a former roommate of Bart's came forward and said the two had plotted earlier to kill the Whitakers. Investigators recorded a phone conversation between the two. Although Bart said nothing specific about the killings, he did agree to pay the roommate $20,000 — but then he disappeared, running to Mexico in July 2004.
While Bart was on the lam, police learned two friends — Christopher Brashear and Steven Champagne — had plotted with Bart in the crime. Champagne admitted to being the getaway driver and told police Brashear had pulled the trigger.
In September 2005, Bart was arrested and brought back to Texas. Kent went to see his son in custody.
"The very first thing he told me as we were facing each other through the glass was, 'Dad, I don't know why this happened, but I'm going to do everything I can to make it quick and as painless for everyone as possible.'"
Kent believed this was an indication Bart was willing to plead guilty. But the Fort Bend County District Attorney refused to rule out the death penalty as punishment. In the months leading up to the scheduled trial, Kent and other members of the family, including his dead wife's relatives, met with prosecutors. They urged no capital punishment.
"We met with them for about an hour," Kent told The Post. "At the conclusion, the DA leaned over the table and asked, 'So Mr. Whitaker, you are asking me not to pursue the death penalty?' I got out of my chair and down on my knees and said, 'I'm begging you not to pursue the death penalty.'"
But the state proceeded with a capital case anyway, painting the defendant as a remorseless sociopath who had manipulated his accomplices. They also argued Bart was motivated by money, believing he would receive a $1 million inheritance, the Austin American-Stateman reported.
Bart was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to die. The shooter, Brashear, received life in prison. The getaway driver, Champagne, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Kent was left sifting through his relationship with his son for warning signs, clues, indicators — anything that could explain what had happened.
Before the murders, Bart and his father enjoyed long-distance bicycling. They would go on 100-mile long-hauls, just the two of them. "You have a lot of opportunity to talk, and we did," he told The Post. "We had a good relationship. Also, Tricia and I both were active parents, we didn't ignore things."
Bart has also struggled to put his actions into context. "The 15 second sound bite answer is I wanted revenge for being alive and I blamed them for that," he told "20/20" in 2009. "I blamed them for who I was instead of blaming me."
He continued: "In order for me to be that person that my parents would love or that they did claim to love, I had to be better than I was ... There was an idealized version of me and then there was me. ... So every time I failed at reaching that goal of mine, I felt like a failure."
He also added the plot with his two friends was "sort of like a game of chicken between me and the other guys." Bart was waiting to see who would back out before the final act. But no one did.
"I think he believed that who we were loving was a person who didn't exist," Kent, the father, told the same program. "He was hiding behind the mask so we wouldn't find out."
On death row, Whitaker, now 38, had been a model prisoner, his petition argues. He's earned a bachelor's degree by mail in English literature, and also is close to finishing a master's degree from Cal State. All he needs is the school to sign off. "His thesis is in committee," Kent said. "It probably won't be cleared until after Feb. 22, so it might be posthumous."
Kent continues to wait for word from the board's decision.
Often, when people hear about his story, they ask whether fighting to keep his son alive isn't in some way a betrayal of his wife and other son's memory. "I'm honoring their memory," he explained to The Post. "I know they would not want Bart's life taken for this. They would be horrified at what's happening."