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.
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.
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…)