Man Condemned For Family Murder Plot Loses Federal Appeal

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HOUSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court has rejected an appeal from a suburban Houston man on death row for arranging the killings of his mother and brother in 2003 so he could collect a $1 million inheritance.

Attorneys for Thomas “Bart” Whitaker, 37, argued to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that his trial lawyers were deficient and that Fort Bend County prosecutors during the guilt-innocence and punishment phases of his trial improperly referred to discussion of a plea deal that never was reached.

Court records show Whitaker offered to take responsibility for the killings and accept life sentences but his attorneys said prosecutors rejected it because it contained no expressions of remorse for the shooting deaths of his mother, Patricia Whitaker, 51, and his 19-year-old brother, Kevin, at the family’s Sugar Land home. Whitaker’s father also was shot but survived.

The 5th Circuit, in its ruling late Tuesday, noted a lower court said the court record consistently showed trial lawyers initiated the plea bargain offer and that it included a provision that prosecutors would promise “to consider” not seeking the death penalty.

A jury decided he should be put to death.

Evidence showed the plot was arranged by Whitaker, included two of his friends and was at least his third attempt to kill his family.

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 in Whitaker’s trial.

As part of the plot, Whitaker was shot in the arm to draw attention away from him.

Investigators said the shooting was made to look like the family had interrupted a burglary and took place as the Whitakers returned from a dinner to celebrate Thomas Whitaker’s graduation from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, where he transferred in 2001 after attending Baylor University in Waco. Evidence showed Whitaker never graduated from either school.

In another case involving a Texas death row inmate, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday rejected an appeal from Robert Pruett, who was condemned for the fatal stabbing of a Texas corrections officer in 1999.

Pruett, 37, already was in prison with a 99-year sentence when he was arrested for the slaying of corrections officer Daniel Nagle at the McConnell Unit prison near Beeville, about 85 miles southeast of San Antonio. Pruett’s lawyers appealed a ruling from the Bee County trial court regarding new DNA testing of evidence. The court found the trial outcome wouldn’t have changed if the new DNA test results had been available.

Neither Whitaker nor Pruett has an execution date.

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