What last meals can teach us about the death penalty

After reading hundreds of articles about the trials, appeals and executions of criminals for my research assistantship I’ve become depressingly familiar with the tradition of reporting on an individual’s last meal. In the US, most states offer individuals on death row the opportunity to choose their last meal. The details of these requests appear in almost every article covering an execution, sometimes incorporated into the article, and surprisingly often as an afterthought, “He was pronounced dead at 12:17 am, following 15 years of appeals and an unwavering assertion of his innocence. In his final words he expressed his love and gratitude to his family. Oh, and his last meal was pecan pie.” I knew this practice existed, I’ve seen it in news coverage before, but reading mentions of last meals back to back to back was different. It made me realize just how weird, and contradictory and depressing the practice is.

Photo from photo essay by Celia Shapiro
Photo from photo essay of prisoner’s last meals by Celia Shapiro

Brent Cunningham has a great essay on last meals in which (among many other things) he traces the tradition back to ancient Greece and Rome, specifically to Roman gladiators who were fed lavish meals before their day in the Coliseum. The public obsession with last meals is much more recent, and probably stems from the shift away from public executions in the US – which has left the public with less opportunity to view executions but no less interest in them. And the media are well aware of this interest. CBS News coverage of last meals describes them pretty accurately as “an enduring, if morbid, source of fascination.” The Huffington Post, covering a website dedicated to last meals, describes them as “fascinating yet creepy.”

Blogs and crime tv website coverage of last meals trends towards morbid curiosity and frivolity. TruTv’s slideshow features mugshots and below, urges viewers to “also check out: hot celebs pretending to eat.” Headline News’ gallery is titled “Gatorade to Lobsters: Serial Killer’s Last Meals” and more disturbingly, features a smug Nancy Grace staring out from the page banner.

James Reynolds for Amnesty International. Text: “This was Ruben Cantu’s last meal. Executed in 1993. Proved Innocent in 2010.”

There is also work on last meals that is reverent and striking, including Celia A. Shapiro and Mat Collishaw‘s photo essays featured in MotherJones and Time respectively. Recognizing the power of the idea (and images) of the last meal, Amnesty International recently commissioned artist James Reynolds to recreate the last meals of men who were later proven innocent. The meals featured in an anti-death penalty campaign alongside the dates individuals were executed and presumed or proven innocent.

The Last Last Meal

In 2011, Texas, the state with by far the highest number of executions, ended this tradition following the execution of a man who did not eat any of the enormous meal he had requested (it included over ten items, one of which was a pound of bbq). Notably, the inmate in question was Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist sentenced to death for the gruesome, racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr. – a murder which motivated the passage of a Texas hate crime law and the Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  Not surprisingly, Brewers final act outraged many, including State Senator John Whitmire, who called on the executive director of the Texas prison agency to end the practice of last meals. Within hours, the prison agency’s executive director had terminated the policy, effective immediately. The New York Times spoke to Whitmire about his opposition, which he said had little to do with cost and state budgets:

“He never gave his victim an opportunity for a last meal…Why in the world are you going to treat him like a celebrity two hours before you execute him? It’s wrong to treat a vicious murderer in this fashion. Let him eat the same meal on the chow line as the others.”

Whitmire was right not to worry about cost, since last meals are rarely as extravagant as they seem. In fact, the last meals published are generally what is requested, not what prisoners actually get. In most states there are limitations on what can be provided. In Florida, last meals can cost no more than $40 and all ingredients must be local. California provides last meals costing up to $50 and Oklahoma (the state with the third most executions) budgets just $15 for last meal provisions. Following the change in Texas policy, Timothy Williams of the Times interviewed a Brian D. Price, a former Texas death row chef who description of his efforts to fulfill last meal wishes is worth quoting in full:

“The Texas Department of Corrections has a policy that no matter what the request, it has to be prepared from items that’s in the prison kitchen commissary. And, like if they requested lobster, they’d get a piece of frozen pollock. Just like they would normally get on a Friday, but what I’d do is wash the breading off, cut it diagonally and dip it in a batter so that it looked something like at Long John Silver’s — something from the free world, something they thought they were getting, but it wasn’t. They quit serving steaks in 1994, so whenever anyone would request a steak, I would do a hamburger steak with brown gravy and grilled onions, you know, stuff like that. The press would get it as they requested it, but I would get their handwritten last meal request about three days ahead of time and I’d take it to my captain and say, “Well, what do you want me to do?” And she’d lay it out for me. I tried to do the best I could with what I had. Amazingly, we did pretty well with what we did have. They are served two hours before they are executed and it is no longer a burger and fries or a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich or whatever they requested. All it is, two hours later, is stomach content on an autopsy report.”

As Price’s experience suggests, the tradition of the last meal is often misrepresented and is inherently counter intuitive. The “choice” of steak or lobster in reality amounts to a choice of reimagined prison staples. And two hours later the privilege of a personalized and (we imagine) comforting last meal is “stomach content on an autopsy report.” (more…)

Democracy Is Not Magic


Get used to hearing about Gilens and Page. The two political scientists — from Northwestern and Princeton, respectively — have a forthcoming article in the Fall 2014 of Perspectives on Politics*. The article reaches the conclusion that economic elites and interest groups representing business have greater policy influence than the mass public. In the Year of Piketty this finding has already attracted quite a lot of attention. That’s them on The Daily Show above, and Krugman discussed the article a few weeks ago. The BBC declares that article demonstrates that the “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy” and in the authors’ conclusion they argue:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

I don’t find the overall message to be very surprising — although there are some possible issues with their empirical strategy — and because I don’t particularly care if the U.S. clears the bar of some technical definition of democracy. But I still take issue with this kind of conclusion. Democracy is not measured by policy outcomes and is not defined by where the balance of power in society lies at any particular moment. If a representative democracy represents some groups better than others that does not mean it is not a representative democracy. Or, as I put it a few years ago:

The fact is that “democracy” is a catch-all word that describes a host of political institutions which are similar only in that they aggregate the preferences of their citizens through some type of electoral process which is guided (and constrained) by previously established law. “Democracy” is decidedly not a description of a set of particular outcomes favored by the technocratic center-left … Given that, it is not completely clear to me that the U.S. has lost its ability to function; conflicting interests, partisanship, gamesmanship, interest group lobbying, rent capture, and vituperative campaigns are all par for this course, not evidence that things have gone horribly awry.

The desire to declare outcomes that we normatively prefer as “democratic” and outcomes that we do not prefer as “non-democratic” is ahistorical and, I believe, damaging. We need to accept the fact that no political regime is perfect. We need to accept the fact that economic inequality is not only possible but likely in a “true” democracy, as are plenty of other bad outcomes including war, slavery, patriarchy, discrimination, censorship, and environmental degradation. Among other reasons, this is why constitutions are so important.

The Gilens and Page results are interesting and useful. Folks should absolutely read the paper and take it seriously. But wild extrapolations from the results are not trustworthy. The true message of the paper is this: Democracy is not magic. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again. The U.S. is a democracy. If you don’t like certain outcomes in the U.S. then you don’t like democratic outcomes.

*Disclosure: Perspectives on Politics is edited by one of my colleagues at Indiana University, my academic home, and has published my work in the past.

Gary Becker, RIP

Becker was a bogeyman for many who reflexively dislike “neoliberalism”, public choice economics, or markets more generally. In the minds of some he is further tarnished by his association with University of Chicago economics.

But Becker was undeniably brilliant, and his influence was very far-reaching. His primary contribution, as he explained in his 1992 Nobel lecture, was to conceive of economics as a way of thinking, thus extending moving economics past the study of industrial organization and value calculations into other aspects of society. What this meant for Becker is that behavioral incentives exist in all social settings, so the basic logic of cost/benefit analysis is useful generally. Others thought this intellectual project was less benign; when you hear people complain about the “moral limits” of markets or the need to disassociate economic logics from social interactions you are hearing an attack on Becker.

Typically these attacks miss Becker’s central insights or underestimate their quality. This point was made powerfully by Michel Foucault, of all people, as he explained in The Birth of Biopolitics lectures. Some years later Becker thoughtfully responded. Sometimes Becker did display reductionist tendencies that were severe enough to view his conclusions with some skepticism, but even then his insights were useful and the power of his logic is clear. (When reading him it is worth asking just how often ceteris really is paribus.)

I find Becker’s vision of human capital to be not only persuasive in a basic sense but also empowering. If it penetrated social consciousness more I believe a wide range of social outcomes would improve. It is relevant for current discussions of economic inequality and the usefulness of conceptualizing labor as a class in a modern economy.

Here is Becker on Google Scholar and also his profile page. His H-Index is an astounding 80. Tyler Cowen picks some of his favorite Becker deep cuts. I’ve always liked his “Crime and Punishment”, which is relevant to the argument Graham and I are having over social approbation and Donald Sterling.

Yes, We Should Shame and Punish Racists

Contra Graham below, I do not think Donald Sterling should’ve been treated lightly. My disagreement with him stems from his assertion that “the goal” is to convince racists to not be racists. I do not think that is the appropriate aspiration in all cases, including this one.

It clearly is not the NBA’s goal. The NBA’s goal is to disassociate from racists. This is not only wise in an immediate instrumental sense — the players were going to strike if Sterling was not suspended, putting the playoffs in jeopardy — but in broader relational sense. It is not sensible for me to join the Westboro Baptist Church in order to patiently sit with them and try to persuade them to change their minds. It is nonsensical for at least two reasons. First is that voluntary association is a legitimating act. Second is that it is extremely unlikely to be successful.

Reams of research suggest that political views seldom change. When they do it is usually as the result of new exposure: having to directly view someone else’s plight for the first time. Donald Sterling’s problem is not his under-exposure to African-American athletes and their supporters. “Raising awareness” of the problem with his behavior is not likely to help him change his mind. In such circumstances patient explanation and “debunking” frequently exacerbate the problem.

Moreover, Sterling has shown no interest at all in having an open discussion. To my knowledge he has not publicly acknowledged this situation, nor has he apologized. His wife — co-owner of the team and also a racist — is suing Sterling’s former mistress for leaking the tape. These people are trying to use their enormous fortune to materially harm the lives of those who object to their execrable behavior. I’m sorry but there’s no way to reason with people in an environment such as this.

So persuasion is usually wasted effort and may worsen the problem. There is another goal: punishment. Clearly the NBA wishes to punish Sterling materially as well as disassociating from him and shaming him, and this is appropriate. I do not think it matters that this was a private conversation as the purpose of the conversation was for Sterling to instruct someone over whom he had a great deal of influence to actively discriminate against others. Sterling’s talk was not idle, in other words, and he had many, many priors. Punishment for its own sake is appropriate in cases where people have harmed others.

While I admire Graham’s eagerness to raise the status of deliberation, and I share his skepticism of the motivations behind society’s tendency to veer from one Two Minutes Hate to another, I think in this case (and cases like it) his patience is unwise. If nothing else it legitimizes beliefs that ought not be legitimized by treating them as worth consideration.