On Execution Day, Three Killers in Different States Meet Different Fates
Posted February 23, 2018 3:01 a.m. EST
They were three killers — each set to be executed Thursday night in a different state. But by the end of the day, each had met a different fate.
In Texas, the governor granted a rare death row commutation for Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. Shortly after 6 p.m., after Eric Scott Branch’s last-ditch appeals were denied, Florida put him to death. And in Alabama, the state delayed the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm because medical officials were unable to access a vein before a midnight deadline.
Had all three men been put to death, it would have been the first time in more than eight years that three people had been executed on the same day in the United States.
But less than an hour before Whitaker’s scheduled execution Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas spared the man’s life. He accepted the unanimous recommendation of the state’s Board of Pardons to change the death sentence of Whitaker, who in 2003 orchestrated the killing of his mother and brother near Houston, to life in prison without parole.
The last-minute commutation was the first in a decade in a state that has long led the nation in executions and came after Whitaker’s father, who was shot in the attack but survived, led an effort to stop his son’s execution.
“Mr. Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member,” Abbott said in a statement, noting that 30 inmates had been executed during his three years as governor. “Mr. Whitaker must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime.”
While multiple executions have been scheduled and carried out on the same day before, the unusual flurry Thursday bucked an overall decline in executions across the country over more than a decade. Twenty-three people were put to death in 2017, a steep decline from 52 in 2009 and 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
Four inmates, including Branch, have been put to death in 2018.
“We won’t be able to tell from what happens tonight alone whether this is a change in the trend or not,” Robert Dunham, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center, said in an interview.
But Dunham noted that the number of executions so far this year and those scheduled in the coming weeks would still be fewer than those during the same time in some previous years.
“It will still be consistent of the long-term trend away from the death penalty,” he said.
Texas has played a major part in the decrease in executions throughout the country. Changes in state laws, appeals by death row inmates and fewer capital punishment cases have contributed to the sharp drop-off. Thirty-five people were executed there in 1999, compared with seven in 2017.
Still, more inmates are executed in Texas than in any other state, underscoring the rarity of the governor’s decision to commute Whitaker’s death sentence.
After meeting this month with the board’s members, who were appointed by the governor, the father said that he could not bear to have his son put to death. He said that no other relatives approved of it.
The father was shot in the chest during the attack, which his son masterminded and was carried out by the son’s roommate, who was convicted but did not receive the death penalty. In announcing the commutation, Abbott also noted that the gunman had not been sentenced to death.
After the governor’s decision, Thomas Whitaker said he appreciated that his father’s wishes were granted.
“I’m thankful for this decision, not for me but for my dad,” Whitaker, 38, said in a statement distributed by prison officials. “Whatever punishment I might have received or will receive will be just. I deserve any punishment for my crimes, but my dad did nothing wrong.”
Later in the evening, plans to execute Hamm, 61, were set in motion before his death warrant expired at midnight. But about 30 minutes before that deadline, prison officials called it off.
Jeff Dunn, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, said that medical staff members at the prison tried to access a vein on Hamm after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a stay around 8:45 p.m.
“They recommended we not continue simply because we were running out of time,” Dunn said at a news conference at the Holman Correctional Facility. “I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.”
Dunn said it would be up to the state attorney general’s office to decide when another execution date could be set.
Hamm’s lawyers had argued in his appeals that he had terminal cancer and that his condition and prior drug usage would make it difficult for prison officials to find a vein for lethal injection. After the state halted the execution Thursday night, one of his lawyers, Bernard E. Harcourt, said he believed Hamm’s health complicated the procedure.
“They probably couldn’t find a vein and had been poking him for two and a half hours,” Harcourt wrote on Twitter. “Unconscionable. Simply unconscionable.”
Hamm has been on death row for decades after he killed a motel clerk in Cullman, Alabama, in 1987 during a robbery.
Branch, 47, raped and fatally beat a University of West Florida student in 1993. He was pronounced dead at 6:05 p.m. Thursday, the state said.