Death Row's 'Last Meal' Means More to Executioners than Executed

An inmate's "last meal" brings civility to the ritual of the death penalty.

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The idea of a "last meal" for condemned prisoners is irrational and a bit bizarre. But so, perhaps, is the Texas decision to eliminate the practice in the execution-happy Lone Star State.

The change happened after a state lawmaker expressed outrage after convicted murderer Lawrence Brewer ordered a last meal that, it's fair to say, most nutritionists would consider a bit excessive, and certainly not heart-healthy. Brewer, a self-described white supremacist convicted of dragging an African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., to his death, ordered the following, according to the Los Angeles Times:

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 with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover's pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.

If we weren't already disgusted with Brewer, the choice of his last meal seals it. The menu reads like some Onion story about last meals chosen by categories of felons (would an embezzler demand a vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild and some pâté?). Or maybe he was hoping to beat the state to the punch, suffering a massive heart attack before they walked him in chains to his death chamber.

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State Sen. John Whitmire was outraged, calling Brewer a "bad person" who did not deserve special treatment. The understatement of Whitmire's description is almost as extreme as the last menu. And—worse!—Brewer didn't even eat it. Was it a deliberate attempt to make the state waste cash, or was his stomach a bit upset, under the circumstances? We may never know.

We can argue about the morality or criminal justice effectiveness of the death penalty. But make no mistake—the tradition of the "last meal," which is ingrained in movies and novels as well as our justice system—is more about us than it is about the condemned person.

Does anyone think someone who did something so horrible that the state will kill him or her deserves a special meal? Is it meant to bring some sort of comfort to the person about to die? No—it's about the rest of us feeling more comfortable about participating, even just as helpless witnesses, to a killing. Providing a last meal, last rites, and other courtesies gives an illusion of ceremony and thought to the killing, helping us to believe that the execution is more rational than the murder the condemned person may have been convicted of committing. It gives a sense of civility to an act so uncivilized that we imprison—and in some cases, execute—people who commit it.

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And then there is our relationship with food, both as something to nurture us and something to mark occasions (which is part of why couples spend absurd amounts of money on wedding cakes that few people really want to eat). The other day, I was forced to buy mousetraps, and while I wanted the uninvited brown field mouse out of my apartment, I'll concede I was happy to find traps that would not make me actually look at the dead mouse, once it was caught. The traps required peanut butter as a lure. I had spent more than a full minute in my local Walgreens looking at the labels on the peanut butter, considering the reduced-fat option, and whether I wanted chunky or smooth, before it occurred to me that it really didn't matter. I still don't know whether it was an automatic reaction—I'm a food label-reader—or whether spending even a minute to choose the mouse's last meal made me feel better about killing it. (The traps are still empty after several days. I'm hoping that the mouse, which, after all, was guilty of nothing worse than trespassing, scurried back out onto the terrace for good).

The last meal for prisoners is irrational, in terms of the condemned person. It's the death penalty-favoring public that needs it.