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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…

Thomas Whitaker 'given new life' after death penalty commuted, his dad says

Kent (left) and Thomas Whitaker
SUGAR LAND, Texas (KTRK) -- The Sugar Land man, who was within an hour of execution when the call came for clemency, is now off death row.

Bart Whitaker has been moved to an inmate processing facility in Huntsville, a day after his death sentence was commuted.

Gov. Greg Abbott commuted the death sentence of the 38-year-old Thursday after considering the pleas of Whitaker's father, Kent, who insisted he would have been victimized again should his only remaining immediate family member be executed.

Patricia and Kevin Whitaker were killed in the ambush orchestrated by Bart Whitaker on Dec. 10, 2003. Kent Whitaker was also shot but survived. It was a failed attempt by Bart Whitaker, prosecutors say, to secure an expected inheritance of more than $1 million if his entire family had been killed.

"It's a new day", said Kent Whitaker on Friday.

He hasn't yet been allowed to speak with his son yet.

"He's been given basically a new life, and I hope that he will fill it with as much positive things as he can," Kent Whitaker said.

Gov. Abbott cited the fact that the actual shooter wasn't given a death sentence as a factor in his decision.

Abbott wrote, "The murders of Mr. Whitaker's mother and brother are reprehensible. The crime deserves severe punishment for the criminals who killed them. The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison."

Abbott's office denied ABC13's request for an opportunity to interview the governor in more detail about the commutation.

"That undercuts the legs of the criminal justice system in my opinion," said former Sugar Land police Det. Marshall Slot.

Slot is disappointed in the decision and says it shows what a master-manipulator Bart Whitaker really is.

"He's not only manipulating his father, he's allowed his father to manipulate the board of pardons and paroles, which ultimately manipulated the governor to commute Bart's sentence," Slot said.

Kent Whitaker previously filed a plea with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking for the execution to be halted. Based on his arguments for mercy, the board unanimously recommended clemency earlier this week.

When now-former judge Cliff Vacek looks back on the trial of Bart Whitaker, he remembers the weeks of testimony and the heinous details the jury had to endure before they would come to the conclusion that the defendant should die for his crimes.

So when the governor stepped in to commute that sentence, Vacek became concerned.

"For them to just toss that aside and say, 'even though the jury heard all the evidence and said this is what ought to happen,' I don't know how it can not diminish the role of the jury," Vacek said.

Vacek adds that the move could have larger implications, like reducing the deterrent effect of the death penalty among those who might consider committing murder.

Bart Whitaker will live the rest of his life in prison.

Kent Whitaker insists Bart is a changed man. He says Bart wants to live out his days helping other inmates learn English as a second language.

"I hope that, and I believe he will, take advantage of this opportunity he's been given," said Kent Whitaker.

Source: ABC13, Kevin Quinn, February 23, 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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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning