Death sentence in murder plot upheld
The conviction and death sentence for a suburban Houston man who arranged
the killings of his mother and brother so he could collect a $1 million
inheritance were upheld Wednesday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Thomas "Bart" Whitaker didn't challenge his conviction but insisted in his
appeal that his death sentence wasn't proper because his court record
doesn't include a plea offer he made to prosecutors.
In exchange for taking responsibility for the killings, he wanted
prosecutors to remove the possibility of the death penalty because he was
willing to accept "as many life sentences as the state wanted … to spare
his already victimized family the ordeal of a trial," according to court
Prosecutors refused the offer and a Fort Bend County jury 2 1/2 years ago
sentenced him to death.
The appeals court said the proposed deal was known to jurors and was the
subject of questioning of witnesses, most notably Whitaker's father, who
survived a gunshot wound to the chest and opposed the death penalty for
his son. Whitaker argued the absence of the formal offer in the trial
record impaired his ability to pursue a motion for a new trial.
Whitaker, 29, was convicted of the December 2003 shooting death of his
mother, Patricia Whitaker, 51, and brother, Kevin, 19, at the family's
home in Sugar Land, a southwest Houston suburb.
Evidence showed the plot was arranged by Bart Whitaker, was at least his
third such attempt to kill his family and included 2 of his friends.
The gunman, Chris Brashear, pleaded guilty in 2007 to a murder charge and
was sentenced to life in prison. He's eligible for parole in 30 years.
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 Bart Whitaker's trial.
As part of the plot, Bart Whitaker was shot in the arm to draw attention
away from himself.
The appeals court said evidence showed Whitaker "walked past his wounded
father, his dying mother and his dead brother so that Brashear could shoot
(him) in the shoulder, as they had planned, in order to direct suspicion
away from (his) involvement in the offense."
Investigators said the shooting, made to look like the family had
interrupted a burglary, took place as the Whitakers returned from a dinner
to celebrate Bart Whitaker's graduation from Sam Houston State University
in Huntsville, where he transferred in 2001 after attending Baylor
University in Waco. Evidence, however, showed Whitaker never graduated
from either school.
"The jury heard how (Whitaker) sat across the dinner table from his mother
and brother accepting congratulations and a Rolex watch, all the time
knowing they were about to be killed pursuant to his plan," the appeals
Whitaker also argued unsuccessfully in his appeal that the Texas death
penalty statute was unconstitutional because it failed to provide a
consistent method for determining which cases merited capital punishment,
that a recorded phone conversation related to an earlier murder plot
improperly was allowed into evidence and that some defense motions
improperly were denied by his trial judge.
Whitaker does not have an execution date. He can still pursue appeals in
the federal courts.
(source: Associated Press)
Yogurt shop murder defendants to be released from jail
State District Judge Mike Lynch this morning ordered yogurt shop murder
defendants Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen released from jail pending
trial after postponing Scott's previously scheduled July 6 re-trial at
Travis County prosecutors said they wanted more time to determine whose
DNA was found in March 2008 in vaginal swabs taken from 13-year-old victim
Amy Ayers. That DNA was later found in another teenage victim.
Defense lawyers for Scott opposed the request, saying they feared that
prosecutors would use it to find additional evidence against their client.
Michael Scott's wife, Jeannine Scott, said she is happy her husband is
coming home after almost 10 years behind bars, but nothing short of a
dismissal of charges will satisfy her.
"It's just another tactic, it's another delay," she said. "The evidence
already shows they have the wrong men."
At a press conference, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg
read from a statement that said, in part: "The reliable, scientific
evidence in the case presents one, and one only, unknown male donor. Given
that, I could not in good conscience allow this case to go to trial before
the identity of this male donor is determined, and the full truth is
"I remain confident that Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott are both
responsible for the deaths at the yogurt shop but it would not be prudent
to risk a trial until we also know the nature of the involvement of this
Lehmberg was joined at the press conference by Police Chief Art Acevedo
and other police and prosecutors.
"Of course I am concerned about their being at liberty, she said. I think
they are guilty of horrible murders. But I ultimately believe that the
successful prosecution of them hinges on making this decision."
Acevedo said that he supports Lehmbergs decision to seek a continuance in
"We do believe we have the right suspects in custody," he said.
After the press conference, Acevedo said his detectives are continuing to
work the case, talking to friends and associates of defendants Scott and
Springsteen to see if they know anything about the case.
"I told my investigators, our department strongly supports them and will
provide whatever resources they may need, Acevedo said.
(source: Austin American-Statesman)