Why Do We Really Give Death-Row Inmates a Special Last Meal?

How much can a prisoner really even eat? (Stock photo)

In Texas, death by lethal injection is no longer the picnic it once was. Incensed over the lengthy bill of fare a convicted killer requested for his last meal two weeks ago, State Senator John Whitmire demanded that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) dial back the hospitality it has traditionally shown its charges. "It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege," Senator Whitmire exclaimed. "One which the perpetrator did not provide to their victim."

Killer Lawrence Russell Brewer asked for a triple-bacon cheeseburger, two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a cheese omelet, fried okra, three fajitas, a meat-lover's pizza, barbecued ribs and white bread, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, three root beers, and a slab of peanut-butter fudge. Then, he didn't even bother to eat any of it.

Now, in response to Senator Whitmire's complaint, the TDCJ will no longer offer inmates an opportunity to choose a final feast. Instead, they'll simply get what every other prisoner in the institution is getting for dinner that night.

Last meals, of course, have always been more about symbolism than nutrition, a kind of criminal justice theater. One doomed murderer, clearly not understanding the gravity of his situation due to brain damage he'd suffered from shooting himself in the head, asked to save his pecan pie for after the execution. Another ordered a dozen oysters — he'd never had them before, and he wanted to use his last meal privileges to try something new.

Some inmates seek refuge in the sweet comforts of childhood. One asked for a last meal consisting only of nothing more than Jolly Ranchers hard candies, another requested two boxes of Frosted Flakes. Others use their choices to seek redemption or at least offer the appearance of that. In 1998, Texas prisoner Jonathan Wayne Nobles asked to receive the Eucharist as his last meal. In 2007, a prisoner in Tennessee, Philip Workman, asked to donate a vegetarian pizza to a homeless person in lieu of a last meal for himself. (The prison denied his request.)

And then there are the gluttons. In 1992, California killer Robert Alton Harris requested a 21-piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 2005, Robert Dale Conklin's last meal included filet mignon wrapped in bacon, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and deveined shrimp sautéed in garlic butter with lemon. In another Texas execution that took place shortly before Lawrence Russell Brewer's did, inmate Steven Woods asked for a large pizza, two pounds of bacon, four fried chicken breasts, five chicken-fried steaks, two bacon hamburgers, fries, a dozen garlic bread sticks, two pints of ice cream, and some Mountain Dew, Pepsi, root beer, and sweet tea to wash it all down with.

No doubt such extravagant menus are obscenely indulgent, but who's being indulged the most by them? While the tradition of the last meal reportedly goes back to Greek and Roman times, its role in contemporary executions is particularly significant. Over the last few hundred years, the death penalty has been transformed from an emphatically public spectacle — think royal heads landing in a bucket with a bloody splat or Old West outlaws dancing a macabre jig at the end of a rope — to an increasingly hidden and ostensibly humane phenomenon.

Now, executions are sequestered behind prison walls with few witnesses. There is no vengeful blood-lust or desire to instill fear animating executions anymore. Instead, we use lethal injections, a process designed to minimize not only the victim's pain but also the conspicuity of the event itself. Guillotines, firing squads, the hangman's noose, electric chairs — they're all viscerally theatrical. A lethal injection, in contrast, is passive, medical, downright dull, an attempt to convince ourselves that the death penalty is not cruel or unusual but rather just another bureaucratic function of the state. To reinforce the normalcy, the justness of the act, we extend the ostensible graciousness of a last meal. Yes, we're strapping you to a gurney and shooting poison into your heart, but you do get extra fries with that — and would a truly barbaric country extend such civilities?

Or to put it another way: If we've been coddling our condemned men with outrageous pre-game spreads, we've been coddling ourselves as well. Ending the last meal is a good first step toward making state-sanctioned killing as transparent and honest as possible. For some, this may make the death penalty harder to swallow. For others, it will just make it sweeter.

Either way, we shouldn't be trying to season the truth of the situation with ice cream and bacon cheeseburgers.