Forgiving a Murderer
(When He’s Your Son)
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Senior Producer
CBN.com Could you forgive someone who killed two members of your family? What if the killer were your own son?
It was a chilly night in December 2003 when the nightmare began for Kent Whitaker. He and his family were returning home from a family dinner celebrating the upcoming graduation of his eldest son, Bart, from college. As they opened their front door, they were met by a masked gunman. The gunman opened fire, killing the youngest Whitaker son, Kevin, and his mother, Patricia. Kent and his son Bart were also shot, but they survived.
As Kent lay in the hospital emergency room after receiving the news that his wife and one son were dead, he struggled to wrap his mind around the night’s events. But even in those first few moments he says he felt God providing a sense of peace.
“On the one hand I was beginning to absorb how radically things had changed,” Kent writes in his book Murder by Family, “while on the other I had a calm assurance that I was not alone and that God would knit whatever happened into his plans for good.”
As he vowed to trust God regardless of what was in store for him in the coming days, Whitaker said he also felt God calling him to forgive the shooter.
“My heart told me that I wanted whoever was responsible to come to Christ and repent for this awful act,” he writes. “At that moment I felt myself completely forgiving him. This forgiveness astounded me, because earlier I had experienced feelings of incredible sadness and intense anger -- even the desire to kill the person responsible with my own hands. Little did I realize just how important my decision to forgive would be in the coming months.”
After months of investigating, the police revealed to Kent that the murders had been orchestrated by his son Bart, and this wasn’t the first attempt he had made on their lives. Several previous attempts planned by his son had failed. As the police closed in on Bart, he fled to Mexico where he spent over a year in hiding.
However, before his son disappeared, Kent had noticed changes taking place in him. The deaths of his mother and brother had hit him hard, and in retrospect, Kent says, it was probably feelings of guilt that began to awaken his son spiritually. In the months following the murders, the father and son grew closer and often spent time in Bible study and prayer together.
Eventually, police tracked down Bart in Mexico and brought him back to the U.S. to stand trial. As the judicial process dragged on, his bewildered father tried to figure out what would cause his son to commit such an unspeakable act. Through letters from his son, he learned that Bart’s young adult years had been mostly a façade. He covered his internal turmoil well in front of friends and family, but inside there was an emptiness that was eating away at him.
“His self-image was so negative that his own life meant very little to him,” Kent writes in his book, “and the lives of other people meant even less. He concluded that since we claimed to have given him life, all of his problems were really our fault, and he would be problem-free if we would just disappear.”
Kent also wrote a letter of his own, reminding his imprisoned son that all had been forgiven.
“I told him to go back and reread the letter, one line at a time, imagining all of the ramifications that particular loss had brought into my life and the lives of others. Then I told him to hear me say, ‘My son, I love you! All is forgiven!’ and not to move to the next line and loss until he could believe that my forgiveness was real,” Kent writes.
He reminded Bart that God’s forgiveness was just as real. The ordeal led his son back to his childhood faith, and he began pursing a relationship with God.
Later the trial drew to a close and Bart’s fate was handed down in a crowded Texas courtroom. Bart was convicted of murder and sentenced to be put to death by lethal injection. It was another devastating blow to his father. Yet, Kent points out that even in the court’s verdict he sees God’s hand at work. Death row is actually the safest place to be in the Texas prison system, he writes in the book, and it is the only section of the prison where inmates live in air-conditioning.
“I am convinced that God will work Bart’s conviction and move to death row for good,” Kent writes. “I think it is instructive to note that the last person Jesus forgave before he died was a repentant criminal hanging next to him.”
In fact, he believes God has been at work throughout the entire harrowing ordeal. Without the tragic events of that December day, he says, his son may have never committed his life to Christ. He describes the horrific events as “necessary steps” in his son’s “desperate spiritual journey.”
“If you believe in heaven and hell and can view your life through the lens of eternity, what happens on earth is much less important than what happens after you die. … In that sense, the shootings and all the horror of the past four years are a small price to pay if they result in Bart’s return to the Lord; after all, Tricia and Kevin were going to heaven anyway. They just went early,” he writes.
“All of us who loved Tricia and Kevin have paid a high price in suffering for that purchase, but Bart’s soul is more valuable than all of our suffering combined. Bart’s redemption and ticket to paradise is God’s priceless gift to me. He has given me the deepest desire of my heart by taking the awful events of December 10 and working them together for good, just as he promised.”
Kent says he has published his story with the hope that it will help others who are facing hardships to see how God remains faithful even through difficult circumstances.
Read more of Kent’s story in his book Murder By Family.
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