The Lucky 3: Texas Death Row Prisoners Granted Clemency Since 1976
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 313 men and women on death row have been granted reprieve. This does not mean they are not paying for their crimes- most sentences were commuted to life without parole. Of everyone spared the death penalty, less than 1% are Texas death row inmates.* Not only is Texas the least forgiving of those on death row, but we have led the nation in executions since 1976 by a comfortable margin.
In fact, only three men have been granted clemency in Texas. We will examine their lives, crimes, and why they didn't / won't have to pay the ultimate price. The first man is rather notorious, and you may be surprised which governor commuted his sentence. You've likely heard of Henry Lee Lucus.
* to be fair, some states have much higher rates due to mass clemencies, e.g. a governor granting clemency to all death row inmates, despite what their crimes were
Henry Lee Lucas
You may have heard about the notorious and prolific serial killer Henry Lee Lucus. What you may not have heard is that he very likely didn't kill all those people- certainly not the 600 he "confessed" to killing- it appears he was very likely manipulated into these confessions by Texas Rangers. Perhaps surprisingly, Henry Lee Lucus's death penalty sentence was commuted by governor and future President George W. Bush in 1998. In 2000, Governor Bush would go on to execute a whopping 40 people in the year 2000 alone.
Lucus had a deeply troubling childhood. He was one of nine children born to a prostitute mother who beat him. A sibling stabbed his eye, which became infected and burst in school, and you can see in the photo above (leftmost) that the prosthetic didn't sit quite right in his face. His mother would force him to watch her engage with her "clients" and cross-dressed him until his school got a court order to make her stop. Suffice it to say, he wasn't given a fair or even remotely normal chance at life.
Lucus had claimed his first murder happened when he was 14 and a 17-year-old woman rejected his advances; however, he would later recount this confession and her body was never found. Lucus did kill his elderly mother after she began to beat him, for which he served 10 years in prison. A few months later he returned to prison for attempting to abduct a 15-year-old girl, for which he'd serve another 5 years. Lucus would spend the next few years almost certainly molesting the children around him. Do you hate him now? I certainly do, despite the empathy I have for his horrible childhood.
The rest of Lucus's story is up for debate. There seems to be some consensus that he killed his traveling companions (including a young girl that he likely had a "relationship" with). However, following the Lucus Report, it seems unlikely that he was ever a serial killer at all. He traded confessions for milkshakes, and who wouldn't know "unknowable" facts after being shown a case file? It is for this reason that Governor Bush commuted Lucus's death row sentence, and why he died of congestive heart failure in a Texas prison in 2001.
Kenneth Foster was only 19 years old when he was convicted of Capital murder and given the death penalty- in spite of the fact that he never killed anyone. Foster was convicted under the controversial Texas "law of parties," as he was the getaway driver for a robbery gone wrong. Mauriceo Brown, the man who actually shot and killed Michael LaHood Jr., was executed in 2006.
Dramatically, Governor Rick Perry commuted Foster execution to 40 years to life only 6 hours before his execution was to take place. However, Foster has gotten into trouble since.
In 2001, his cellmate Anthony Dominguez was found unresponsive. Video confirmed that Foster caused the injury that would lead to Dominguez's death less than an hour later. This incident is not listed on his TDJC offense history, so it may still be working through a lengthy legal process, or perhaps it was even dismissed. I was unable to find that information at this time.
Thomas Whitaker planned the murders of his mother, father, and brother with his roommate Chris Brashear for inheritance money. Brashear shot and killed Witaker's mother and brother; however, Whitaker's father survived the attack. Whitaker was also convicted under the law of parties and was sentenced to death. He was pardoned only one hour before his execution was to take place by Governor Greg Abbott.
Governor Abbot cited a few reasons for the reprieve: Brashear, who actually shot Whitaker's family received a light sentence, Whitaker waived the right to request parole and Whitaker's father fought vehemently to save his son's life, even after all he had done.
He pleaded with the parole board and Abbott not to take his son away since he had already lost the rest of his family.
Executions in Texas are slowing, as fewer people are getting the death penalty to begin with. Time will tell if Texas ever grants clemency to anyone beyond these lucky three. The next execution is actually set for tonight (10/10/2023)- we will see if he is granted a stay or clemency... or not very soon.
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