The 48 Hours episode “Sugar Land: Life or Death” tells the story of Thomas Bartlett “Bart” Whitaker, a college drop out who hired a hit man to murder his affluent family in their home in Sugar Land, Texas. On December 20, 2003, the hit man killed Bart’s 19-year-old brother Kevin Whitaker, his mother Tricia Whitaker, 51. The hit man also shot and injured (non-fatally) Bart’s father Kent Whitaker, and Bart, then 27.
Bart confessed to the murder-for-hire plot and was originally sentenced to death row. But in February 2018, just 45 minutes before Bart’s scheduled execution, Texas Governor Greg Abbott had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment without parole, a first for the governor. Bart’s father successfully pleaded with the court and the governor to not kill his last immediate family member.
Both surviving Whitaker men have become authors since the murders. Kent Whitaker writes about the power of forgiveness in his bestselling book, Murder by Family (see link/cover image above). While in prison, Bart Whitaker has been awarded three prizes in PEN America’s prison writing contests for “Hell’s Kitchen”, “Manufacturing Anomie” and the essay “A Nothing Would Do as Well.”
“Hell’s Kitchen” (2011) includes the line “Life incarcerated is really like a bad song stuck on endless repeat.” And then things change when Bart is given the opportunity to work in the prison’s kitchen, hence the title of the piece.
“Manufacturing Anomie” (2014) is about a prison guard who cleans out the cell of a man on death row who killed himself before his scheduled execution.
“A Nothing Would Do as Well” (2014) is about a death row inmate named Mad Dog who Whitaker describes as “a cross between British soccer hooligan and MacGyver: toss him a few pieces of random rubbish and in twenty minutes he’d be launching the penal equivalent of a Hellfire missile at whatever lawman happened to be unfortunate enough to be passing by.”