9/30/2011

By Brian Shack, J.D. Candidate

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice recently decided to terminate its long-held practice of accommodating last meal requests of those condemned to die. For their last meals, death-row inmates in the Texas criminal justice system are now limited to those same options as other prisoners. The catalyst for this policy change was Texas’ accommodating Lawrence Brewer’s extravagant last meal request. Days before his execution, Brewer requested a meal that included two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat, one half a loaf of white bread, three fajitas, a pizza, one pint of Ice Cream, a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and three root beers.[1] Facing the impending confirmation of his mortality, Brewer left his requested fare untouched.

For now, Brewer, the white supremacist who horrifically murdered a black man dragging him along a bumpy road with a truck, will have been the last inmate in the Texas criminal justice system to receive a special last meal. After Brewer’s execution, a phone call and letter from Texas State Senator John Whitmire prompted Brad Livingston, the Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,  to terminate Texas’ decades old policy of offering the condemned a special last meal.[2] Whitemire’s criticism of the old policy was based on principle, not fiscal responsibility.[3] Whitmore questioned why the condemned should be treated as a “celebrity” in the hours leading up to their death. Notwithstanding Whitemire’s hyperbolic comparison of Brewer to a celebrity, the gist of the question remains valid. Why should tax-payers afford special last meals for those it deems unworthy of life?

Why the “special last meal” tradition began is unclear, however, it is thought that the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans each had their own traditions of offering special last meal.[4] In pre-modern Europe, governments and other entities generally adopted the “last meal” practice. The practice in pre-modern Europe had at least two rationalizations. First, the condemned’s acceptance was desired so that he would not haunt those responsible for his death. A condemned’s accepting a last meal in pre-modern Europe indicated his sincere forgiveness to those responsible for his execution. Second, the condemned’s acceptance of the last meal was desired to increase perception among society that the execution was just. A condemned’s acceptance of a last meal indicated that he believed the punishment fit his crime.  Members of society, then, were more likely to perceive the punishment as just knowing that the condemned himself shared that belief.

Today, most states that use capital punishment subscribe to the last meal ritual, albeit generally subject to various conditions.[5] In Oklahoma, the condemned can choose their last meal on the conditions that it costs less than $15 and that the food can be picked up in McAlester, home of the state’s death chamber.[6] Florida is more lenient, allowing the condemned to choose a meal that costs up to $40. In Virginia, the condemned are limited to one of twenty-eight meals.[7] Before the recent termination of the special last meal practice, Texas had no dollar cap on last meal requests. Prison officials accommodated requests “within reason.“[8]

If the practice of accommodating last meal requests is at all justified today, it may be, as it was in pre-modern Europe, best justified as a means of comforting society in its advocacy or complicity of capital punishment. After society has made the morally questionable choice of seeking justice through taking away life, it makes members of society, especially those that are less comfortable with their support or indifference to capital punishment, feel better that the condemned at least enjoyed and controlled his last meal.

The switch in policy attracted national attention. The reaction seems varied. Some, holding to tradition, see nothing wrong with honoring Brewer’s excessive request. Those less nostalgic social commentators spread their criticism among both the general policy of granting death-row inmates last meal requests and this particular decision to grant Brewer’s especially excessive last meal. Regardless of what people had to say, there was a surprisingly strong national reaction.

Today much of the public seems fascinated in the macabre practice of accommodating special last meal. Several websites are devoted to following what people, both famous and otherwise, request as their last meals. Certain last meal requests have become relatively famous. Whereas Texas State Senator John Whitmire wonders why we should accommodate the last requests of society’s most reprehensible felons, I ask, why does America care about Texas’ last meal policy? Why does America care about last meal requests at all?

The practice of granting last meals adds a human element to the normatively inhumane process of capital punishment. Allowing last meals, and publicizing last meal requests, allows the public not only to see the condemned as something other than monsters, but also affords the public an opportunity to relate to the condemned. People are interested to know that Timothy McVeigh requested two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream, that John Wayne Gacy requested Kentucky Fried Chicken, and that Troy Davis refused a last meal.[9] It reminds us that while the condemned are flawed, they are still people who make some of the same choices as ordinary citizens.