Forgiveness and the Death Penalty
Fourteen years ago a family was gunned down as they returned from dinner, less than a mile from my house. I’ll never forget the panic I felt watching the ten o’clock news, learning about the tragedy that struck so close to home. All four family members had been shot. Mom and younger son died; dad and older son survived. I was so distraught. If this could happen to them, it could happen to us. We often returned home from dinner, strolling into our home without a care in the world. I didn’t sleep that night thinking the Whitaker’s and what I could do to prevent this tragedy from happening to my family.
When this happened I worked part-time for a private investigations firm, and as soon as I arrived at the office the next morning, before placing my lunch in the refrigerator, I knocked on my boss’ door. He was a retired lieutenant from the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department, but still had many connections. He could see the anguish on my face and ushered me in. This is how I remember the conversation going:
“Did you see the news last night?” I asked.
“Are you talking about the family in Sugar Lakes?”
“Yes. I live in the subdivision next door.”
“Well, it hasn’t been released yet, but they don’t believe the shooting was random. They believe it was an inside job.”
I felt sick. On the one hand I was relieved, on the other hand I was horrified. My city was safe, but my kid could kill me? For the next seven months, Bart lived with his father, Kent, while the investigation continued and police referred to Bart as their “number one suspect.” Kent forgave his son, even before admitting it was his son.
I’m writing about this now because Bart Whitaker is scheduled for execution in two weeks on February 22. Kent is trying to save his son’s life by applying for clemency and making the media rounds to draw attention to mental illness and the meaning of forgiveness. And though Texas may be a victim’s right’s state, it’s still Texas. They don’t just go for jugular, they go for the vein. Kent calls the execution “meaningless” because neither side of their families want Bart to be put to death.
“Being a victim’s rights state should mean something when the victim’s asking for mercy, and not just when they’re asking for vengeance,” said Kent.
The reason the family went out to dinner that night was to celebrate Bart’s graduation. He was given a fancy watch by his parents. Turns out, Bart wasn’t even enrolled in Baylor University, let alone, graduating from it. Mom and Dad just handed a check over to their son and didn’t pay the school tuition directly. At 18 you lose automatic access to information about your children, but never abdicate this role entirely. Stick your nose in your kids’ business. Even Kent gave the advice to always be available for your kids and tell them you love them. Not sure that would have been enough to save Bart, though.
Kent admits his son’s chances for commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment aren’t great. The last time the State of Texas commuted a death sentence similar to this case was in 2008, according to Kent.
If the final appeals run out and the execution remains on the calendar, Kent Whitaker plans to be on the other side of the glass with his son on that day. People who’ve witnessed executions have recommended he not do this – but Kent insists. He can’t imagine his son going through this alone. It is predicted that the governor of Texas will not stop the execution.