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(Xenia Latii)
(Xenia Latii)

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Last Bites

The death row last meal is more than 2,000 years old, dating back to Christ. But in recent years, some states have abandoned the tradition. What do inmates deserve? And why does the idea of a last meal still fascinate us?

Two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and onions. One triple-patty bacon cheeseburger. An omelette with cheese, ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños. Fried okra with ketchup. A pound of barbecued meat with a half loaf of white bread. Three fajitas. A meat lover’s pizza. A pint of Blue Bell ice cream. Peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. Three root beers.

This is the last meal that Lawrence Brewer requested before he was executed in 2011. Brewer had been convicted of murdering James Byrd Jr. in a vicious hate crime in 1998 in Jasper, Texas, in which he and two other men dragged Byrd behind a truck until he was decapitated. After ordering his extravagant final meal, Brewer refused to eat any of it. He was executed by lethal injection shortly thereafter.

In part because of Brewer’s decision not to eat, Texas no longer offers specially prepared last meals to death row inmates. According to Reuters, most states still do. It was surprisingly easy to reverse the policy, which was instituted in 1924 — all it took was a letter to state prison officials from state Senator John Whitmire. He wrote:

Whitmire argued that Brewer’s decision to order such a lavish meal only to eat none of it was a statement, a final act of control over the prison system. (Whitmire did not reply to requests for comment.) That act complicates the last meal convention: Do death row inmates deserve a tradition of this kind? And where did it come from?

The origin of the last meal is murky at best. For decades in France, the to-be-executed were given a glass of rum. In 16th-century England, the inmate shared a meal with the executioner. But the notion of the modern last meal has become Americanized. The last meal, in modern times, is inextricably tied to America and its deep relationship with capital punishment.

But the tradition stretches back hundreds of years, to ancient civilizations. According to Linda R. Meyer’s "The Meaning of Death: Last Words, Last Meals," published in the book Who Deserves to Die: Constructing the Executable Subject, the rituals "have been aspects of executions for as long as human history records." Meyer, a professor of law at Quinnipiac University who has focused on criminal law and legal theory, wrote the book The Justice of Mercy, about criminal punishment. The Aztecs, Hurons, Romans, and Greeks all participated in some form of last meal — whether offered to human sacrifices, prisoners, or merely those on their deathbeds. The American colonials, many years later, would feast with their to-be-executed prisoners as a sort of "reconciliation." "Executions were times of communal atonement, for the commission of crime was a sign of the decadence of all and called for God’s vengeance on the entire community," Meyer writes. Everyone — not only the inmate — was asking for forgiveness through the act.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Europeans Christianized the tradition, Meyer says, drawing influence from the Last Supper. "Certainly as an allusion to Passover and the Last Supper, the last meal signifies unity, forgiveness of sin, and gratitude for salvation through the blood sacrifice of execution," she writes.

Of course, the details of the Last Supper and last meals do not match perfectly: Jesus had not been imprisoned and his last feast was a Passover meal. Still, says Sarah Gerwig-Moore, an associate professor of law at Mercer University and formerly the senior appellate supervising attorney at the Georgia Public Defender Council, the modern conception of the last meal likely does appropriate some aspects of the Last Supper. She has found there to be a high correlation between deeply Christian states and those with high execution rates. Gerwig-Moore, along with colleagues Andrew Davies and Sabrina Atkins, wrote a legal journal paper called "Cold (Comfort?) Food: The Significance of Last Meal Rituals in the United States."

"The most generous meals correlate to the states that execute the most people — except for Texas," Gerwig-Moore says.

In Meyer’s study, she points out that in modern times, there is likely a reconciliation happening: "Last meals may be an offering by the guards and prison administrators as a way of seeking forgiveness for the impending execution, signaling that ‘it’s nothing personal.’"

In 2013, Kevin M. Kniffin and Brian Wansink of Cornell University studied the significance of death row inmates’ last meal choices. Does the meal itself mean something? What about whether or not the tradition is refused? What if some of the meal is left uneaten? The pair looked at 247 different last meal recipients, of which 24 professed innocence and 60 apologized for wrongdoing — and while the sample size is small, some fascinating conclusions can be drawn. Those who believed they were innocent were more likely to refuse to order a last meal: "[Inmates] who denied guilt were 2.7 times as likely to decline a last meal than people who admitted guilt (29% versus 8%)." Kniffin and Wansink argue that those who admitted guilt were "at peace" and, more or less, ready to eat. These people also ate heavier meals, "request[ing] 34% more calories of food than the rest of the sample." And one last observation: "Those who denied guilt also tended to eat significantly fewer brand-name food items."

Professed innocence isn’t the only reason a convict will refuse a last meal. "It’s just like putting gas in a car that don’t have no motor," Barry Lee Fairchild said about his last meal before his execution. Fairchild ordered whatever was on the menu for the inmates that day. He was going to die, so what purpose was there in being selective?

"Whitmire interpreted Brewer’s refusal as a political statement: Run up a tab, exercise some power. But we don’t know, right?" says Gerwig-Moore. "We don’t know if it was a political statement or not. I can’t imagine eating a bite if I knew I was about to be killed. There are stress eaters and stress starvers, right? And you see that in many death penalty [cases], that people become unable to eat."

Gerwig-Moore has spent time with death row inmates, representing two within the past year who were eventually executed. "There are very few things to look forward to for people on death row," she says. "People talk about their last meals years in advance — it’s sort of a conversation starter among prisoners."

It’s a conversation starter for those of us outside the prison system, too. It’s a popular interview query for celebrities. But the way we talk about last meals, Gerwig-Moore found, changes when one is actually coming. Then, it becomes a chance to comfort and maybe even explain oneself.

"I was really struck by the lessons we learn in class differences. In celebrity interviews, the last meal answer is always something very exotic or expensive, like, Oh lobster and champagne! Or something like that," she says. "But what we found in last meal requests of people on death row showed a lot about class, and who is on death row — poor people, for the most part." She says items like Burger King Whoppers are typical. "And you read into what these last meals say about these people, because they have such little agency to talk about themselves. They have their last statement, and then their last meal, so for some of them that’s how they communicate something."

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Erika Camplin, the author of Prison Food in America, agrees that the last meal, for an inmate, can be a way to tell the world something about themselves, and provide a form of comfort. "Many gravitated toward foods of their childhood, such as pizza, fried chicken, fast food," Camplin told me in an email. "Things that reminded them of simpler memories and growing up. On the other hand, some decided to make statements with their choices, such as an extremely simple meal as to seem pious, or one single olive." In 1963, convicted murderer Victor Feguer ordered exactly this — one solitary unpitted olive — as his final meal. "No one knows what was intended, but the mystique lives on and people still talk about it today, so clearly it was effective at leaving a legacy."

Inmates’ unknown intentions in selecting their final meals marks the legacy of Brewer and Texas, too. "I read other accounts of people often being unable to eat any of their meal in that moment, which is quite understandable if you think about it," Camplin wrote. "It’s not hard to imagine that when thinking about your last meal, you come up with the most decadent thing you could imagine, but when it comes down to eating it less than 12 hours before you will be executed, you may just be a ball of nerves. I would imagine this is what happened with Brewer, and he was unfortunately made an example of."

Whitmire was certain Brewer was communicating resistance. Whether or not that’s true, many believe the message behind the last meal is humanity — for the inmate, and for the people carrying out the punishment. "There are standard operating procedures that put up a wall between guards and prisoners, but nevertheless, there is a fondness between them," says Gerwig-Moore. "The last meal as a tradition is really a way of showing humanity between the caregivers of people on death row who are completely powerless and who come to care about these people — they feel complicit, and conflicted. The last meal is a way to offer, in a very, very small way, a show of kindness and generosity."

According to Jason Clark, the director of public information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there are no discussions in the Texas prison community to bring back last meals. But he did explain how last meals worked before they were revoked: Two weeks before an execution, an inmate would send in their request. Food wasn’t brought in — the kitchen staff would use what ingredients were on hand to create the meal. I asked if Brewer’s act was something of a last straw — had too many inmates ordered ridiculous meals and refused to eat them? "Senator John Whitmire felt it was inappropriate and the Executive Director at the time agreed," Clark told me via email. "The practice was stopped." He wrote that prison employees do not discuss the incident, or Whitmire’s decision.

It seems unlikely that Texas’s death row inmates will get their last meals back. No one I spoke with said there was any movement to reinstate the tradition. "The history on this one is a little weird (and politically sensitive)," Amanda Marzullo, interim executive director and policy director for the Texas Defender Service, told me in an email. "I can’t comment on it. There is no effort to reinstate the practice."

For nearly 25 years, Texas executed more death row inmates than any other state with capital punishment. But that changed in 2016: Now that distinction belongs to Georgia. One of Gerwig-Moore’s clients, whom she described as "beloved," was executed in Georgia last year. He made a modest last meal request: a barbecue sandwich and a glass of lemonade. "His counselor took the form and [said], ‘No, no, no, you want more,’ and added coleslaw and a second sandwich and candy and some ice cream — she literally walked him through adding all these things. She just … thought he should have them."

It’s possible that this show of generosity meant more to the counselor than to Gerwig-Moore’s client. "I think last meals are less important to prison culture than they are to the public," Camplin writes. "As a society while we continue to implement capital punishment, we at least perceive that we are giving these death row inmates a dignified finale."

Or maybe we just cling to the concept of one last human act. We can never fully grasp the feelings of people convicted of heinous crimes. And so instead, we allow ourselves to be fascinated by food, something we can understand. In her essay, Meyer might have put it best: "To be human is always to seek meaning in banality."

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