Image for post
Image for post
The Whitaker family in happier times

The moving story of the Whitaker family murders raises as many questions as it answers

My wife and I are fans of the Discovery ID channel. We call it the channel where we get to watch the murders, and we frequently joke that it is convenient there is so much crime in America to keep us entertained.

Today, we were watching an episode of People Magazine Investigates called Fatal Family Secrets. The episode told the story of Bart Whitaker, a young man convicted for the 2003 murders of his mother and brother, and the attempted murder of his father. Whitaker allegedly arranged for his family to be killed the night after they celebrated his upcoming graduation from college, giving him an expensive Rolex watch as a gift. Supposedly, Whitaker arranged the murders to collect upon what he believed to be a rich insurance policy. It is worth noting, however, that he had lied to his family, and rather than being on the verge of graduating from college, he had dropped out with poor grades.

At the beginning of the episode, Cynthia Sanz, People’s Executive Editor breathlessly declared that this story was a “quintessential People story…about a family that seems to have it all…but one night a dark secret leads to a horrific crime that will test the power of forgiveness.” What makes it a moving story is that once his father found out that his troubled son was actually the murderer of his wife and other son, the father forgave him, and campaigned to save his son from the death penalty.

Unfortunately for Bart, the prosecutors and jury were not quite as forgiving as the father. Whitaker was convicted and sentenced to death. There was never really any doubt that Whitaker did the crime — the evidence was pretty overwhelming — but he begged for leniency based upon his interest in becoming a better Christian.

This request does not come from completely out of left field. The Whitaker parents had emphasized their Christian faith and worked hard to instill it in their children. Their murdered son, 19-year old Kevin, had been very active in the Church. Bart, though, was troubled, getting thrown out of his high school for committing petty crimes. Despite this, his wealthy parents showered him with wealth including a condo, luxury vehicles, free tuition at expensive private universities, and an $80,000 trust fund.

So you start to get the picture now. A wealthy white family living in the Texas suburbs, active in their Church and with deep roots in their community. Post-conviction, the courts of appeals — all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court — dismissed the father’s valiant efforts to save his son. Ultimately, the only remaining option was a request for clemency from the Governor, who relies upon the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. It seemed like a long shot. After all, this Governor had never granted any prior requests for commutation of the death penalty.

After pleading to the board for his son’s life, asserting the fact that he would be victimized again by the death of his only remaining son, and arguing that his son should be given the chance to pursue the life that Christ gave him, the father hoped beyond hope that his son would be spared. As it turned out, just fifteen minutes before he was set to be executed, the Governor’s grant of clemency came through. Again, this grant was this governor’s first, and it was based upon the first unanimous favorable recommendation from the Board.

Certainly, my heart bleeds for the father, Kent Whitaker. Were I in his situation, I would probably have done the same thing. But this case tells us something about the arbitrariness of the death penalty in America, and part of the reason it must be phased out. Here, even despite the fact that Bart Whitaker had access to the best defense money could buy, he was convicted and sentenced to death anyway. One wonders if poor minority defendants receive the same kind of defense, but in this case, it didn’t matter.

Likely, the courts got it right in this one. If there is ever a case for the death penalty, this is it. Bart Whitaker received the best of everything, every advantage our country could give him, and yet he showed himself to be an incorrigible sociopath, actually trying multiple times to commit this horrific crime before he finally succeeded. When compared to so many poor, indigent people of color who got none of the breaks in life Whitaker had and often commit crimes just to survive, it is hard to feel sorry for him. And there are still defendants for whom justice really didn’t work. We continue to find defendants wrongfully sentenced to death. But yet with Whitaker, that was not the case.

At first, the father was understandably angry, wanting revenge. But upon discovering that the murderer was his son, he immediately forgave him. This is a moving story, but it makes one wonder, if it turned out that the malefactor was actually one of those poor colored people, would Kent Whitaker have responded the same?

To me, much more impressive are the victims who forgive their wrongdoers even though they owe them nothing. As Jesus said, even sinners love and forgive those who love them. It is the holy person who lives and forgives those who hate them.

Kent Whitaker behaved just as any responsible father should. What is shocking is that even though the courts were not swayed by his pleas, the political system in the form of the governor stepped in and gave preferential treatment to this person who had experienced nothing but preferential treatment in his life. Indeed, this story is not a story of forgiveness. It is a story of the inequality that is the reality of our criminal justice system.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Written by

Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store