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Tennessee execution: Billy Ray Irick tortured to death, expert says in new filing

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Editor's note: Reporter Dave Boucher was one of seven state-required media witnesses at Irick's execution. 
Billy Ray Irick felt searing pain akin to torture before he died in a Tennessee prison in August, but steps taken in carrying out his execution blocked signs of suffering, according to a doctor who reviewed information about the lethal injection.
In new court filings entered late Thursday amidst an ongoing legal challenge of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol, Dr. David Lubarsky said statements from people who witnessed the execution indicated the controversial drug midazolam failed to ensure Irick could not feel pain during his death.
As a result, the death row inmate “experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride,” Lubarsky wrote in the filing.
The document also says the state did not follow its own lethal injection protocol, raising questio…

A call for clemency: Abbott should halt execution

Texas Gov. Greg AbbottKent Whitaker lost his wife and son to a criminal act.

Now he's about to lose his last remaining child. We call on Gov. Greg Abbott to end this chain of death and grant clemency to Thomas "Bart" Whitaker.

In 2007, Bart was convicted of a murder-for-hire plot to kill his mother and brother. His execution is scheduled for Thursday.

There is no questioning the sickness - the evil - that must course through a man's veins if he is driven to such a horrific act. But compounding violence upon violence will not bring a family back to life, nor will it further the cause of justice or bring peace to the victims.

Kent Whitaker himself is asking the state of Texas to spare his son, and it falls to Abbott to grant this father's request.

"For 18 months pre-trial, every victim - my wife's entire family, me and all of my family - actually begged the district attorney to accept two life sentences and spare us the horror of a trial and an eventual execution," Whitaker wrote in the Chronicle last month. "But we were ignored."

Now, just 2 days before his son's scheduled execution, the notoriously tough Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has issued a unanimous recommendation for clemency. The final decision rests with Abbott and he should not delay in following the board's guidance.

To allow this execution to continue will only perpetuate a state-sanctioned machinery of death - to use the language of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun - which churns with a rusty inexactitude and unconstitutional malevolence.

As we have written before, the death penalty is Texas is unconstitutionally arbitrary because race, not the severity of criminal act, is a better predictor of capital punishment.

The death penalty in Texas is unconstitutionally cruel because the appeals and delays of a torpid criminal justice system force defendants to wait for decades in essentially solitary confinement.

The death penalty in Texas is unconstitutionally unusual because our national standards of justice have shrunk its application to only a small number of jurisdictions.

Leading legal minds of our state, such as former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tom Price and current Judge Elsa Alcala, have peered into the inner workings of our capital punishment system and recognized its fatal flaws.

A study by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project called it "too broken to fix."

Yet it doesn't take a jurisprudential expert to witness the moral heart of Whitaker's plea.

"This appeal isn't about releasing him, or forgiving him," Whitaker wrote. "It is about saving his life."

Abbott has the opportunity to make Texas a place that honors a request for life in the face of death. Spare Bart Whitaker from execution.

Source: Houston Chronicle, Editorial, February 21, 2018


Texas parole board recommends killer be spared from death


From left, Kevin, Tricia, Thomas and Kent Whitaker appear in this undated family photo.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a rare decision, unanimously recommended Tuesday that the death sentence of convicted killer Thomas " Bart" Whitaker be commuted.

Whitaker is scheduled for lethal injection Thursday for masterminding the fatal shootings of his mother and brother at their suburban Houston home in 2003. Whitaker's father, Kent, also was shot in the attack but survived. He said he wants his 38-year-old son to live.

The recommendation from the 7-member panel goes to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who can accept it or reject it. The governor appoints the parole board.

It's only the 4th time since the state resumed executions in 1982 that the parole board has recommended clemency within days of an inmate's scheduled execution. In 2 of those cases, then-Gov. Rick Perry rejected the board's recommendation and those prisoners are among the 548 executed in Texas, more than any other state.

David Gutierrez, the parole board's presiding officer, said the panel recommended the governor commute Whitaker's sentence "to a lesser penalty." Jurors who convicted him and sentenced him to death in 2007 had only 1 other option, life imprisonment.

In the clemency petition, Whitaker's attorneys said his execution would "permanently compound" his father's suffering and grief, and compared the case to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, where God sent Cain to "restlessly wander" after killing his brother.

Kent Whitaker has said he's seen "too much killing already," has forgiven his son and believes his son is a changed person.

Whitaker, his son's attorney and supporters awaited the decision in a conference room in the Texas Capitol. As lawyer Keith Hampton read the outcome, Whitaker covered his face with his hand and wept softly. After about 15 seconds, he looked at Hampton and murmured, "Thank you."

"I never, ever believed that we were going to get a unanimous decision in favor," he said as he and Hampton headed immediately across the building to Abbott's ceremonial office - even though the governor wasn't there - to plead with the governor that he honor the board's recommendation.

"The best we were hoping was a 4-3," he said. "This is beyond amazing. I can't tell you."

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas
At his trial, Bart Whitaker said he took "100 %" responsibility for planning and carrying out the killings. Prosecutors said he hated his parents and hoped to collect an inheritance.

"I think it's the wrong decision and clearly the wrong decision," said Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey, whose office prosecuted Whitaker and convinced a jury to convict him and send him to death row.

He said Tuesday that he didn't know if he could speak with Abbott before the governor made a decision.

"I don't know if that's part of the allowed protocol," Healey said. "It's a unique situation."

Evidence showed the murder plot included two of Whitaker's friends and was at least Whitaker's 3rd attempt to kill his family. The shooting was made to look like an interrupted burglary at the family's home in Sugar Land, southwest of Houston, and Bart Whitaker was shot in the arm to draw attention away from him.

About 6 months after the shootings, he disappeared. A year later, he was apprehended in Mexico.

The gunman, Chris Brashear, pleaded guilty in 2007 to a murder charge and was sentenced to life in prison. Another man, Steve Champagne, who drove Brashear from the Whitaker house the night of the shootings, took a 15-year prison term in exchange for testifying at Whitaker's trial.

In 2007, death row inmate Kenneth Foster was spared and his sentence commuted to life. The board had voted 6-1 in favor of a commutation. Perry said Foster and a co-defendant in a fatal robbery in San Antonio should not have been tried together for capital murder. Foster was the getaway driver in the slaying and both he and a partner received death sentences. His co-defendant was executed.

In 2004, Perry overruled the parole board's 5-1 vote favoring clemency and convicted killer Kelsey Patterson was executed. He took the same action in 2009 in the case of death row inmate Robert Lee Thompson, who was executed despite a favorable a 5-2 ruling from the board.

Source: Associated Press, February 21, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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