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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Decision day for father trying to save son from Texas death penalty

From left, Kevin, Tricia, Thomas and Kent Whitaker appear in this undated family photo.
Kent Whitaker, struggling to halt the looming execution of the son who upended his life 14 years ago, should know shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday whether his efforts have passed the first critical hurdle.

Whitaker long ago forgave his son, Thomas Whitaker, for setting up the ambush that killed his wife and only other child as they returned to their Sugar Land home in December 2013. With Thursday’s execution date approaching, Kent Whitaker begged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that his son’s death sentence be reduced to life in prison.

If a majority of the seven-member board favors clemency, the decision on whether to commute the death sentence would be up to Gov. Greg Abbott.

The board will vote around 1 p.m., with out-of-town members faxing their ballots in to the parole board’s Austin office. Shortly after that, Kent Whitaker and his lawyer, Keith Hampton, expect to receive a phone call to learn the results.

Thomas Whitaker, now 38, was sentenced to death for luring his family out to dinner so an armed friend could await their return home. Shot in the upper chest, Kent Whitaker barely survived the ambush, but his wife Tricia and youngest child Kevin, a college sophomore, were killed.

In an attempt to deflect blame, the gunman also shot Thomas Whitaker in the arm, but police eventually saw through the facade.

The shooter, Chris Brashear, was given a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder, while the getaway driver, Steve Champagne, agreed to a 15-year plea deal and testified against Whitaker.

Kent Whitaker said his Christian faith allowed him to forgive his son. Now he wants the parole board and Abbott to acknowledge that as the crime’s chief surviving victim, his wishes should be respected and his son’s life should be spared.

“I have seen too much killing already,” Kent Whitaker recently told the American-Statesman. “I know Tricia and Kevin would not want him to be executed. I can’t imagine seeing the last living part of my family executed by the state, especially since all the victims didn’t want that to happen in the first place.”

If his efforts fail, Kent Whitaker has promised to be on the other side of the death chamber window in Huntsville when his son is administered the fatal dose of pentobarbital.

“As he goes to sleep, I want him to be able to look at me and see that I love him. I really want him to know that I forgive him, that I love him,” he told the Statesman. “I don’t want to see this. God, I don’t want to see this. I’ve seen enough killing. But I can’t imagine letting him be in the room by himself without anyone there with him.”

Source: The Statesman, Chuck Lindell, February 20, 2018


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