It has long been a tradition to give a dying man his last requests for dinner. Lawrence Brewer took that request to an extreme, ordering a meal fit for an entire cellblock. That produced a backlash from state Senator John Whitmire who demanded an end to the tradition in Texas. He succeeded and now death row inmates will simply get whatever is served that night at the prison.
“Enough is enough,” Whitmire insisted, “It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege. It’s a privilege which the perpetrator did not provide to their victim.”
Brewer was a man below contempt to be sure. The white supremacist was convicted in the notorious 1998 killing in which James Byrd Jr., a black man, was dragged behind a truck for several miles.
However, the tradition of the last meal has long represented an element of mercy in the application of the death penalty. I must admit that I was taken aback by the account of what Brewer ordered when I first read: two chicken fried steaks, a triple meat bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet, a large bowl of fried okra, three fajitas, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, and a pound of barbecue with a half loaf of white bread. However, the value of such a meal is likely less than $20 at a prison facility. In states like Florida, such meals are limited to a maximum value of $40.
The last meal offers a small modicum of comfort to someone about to be executed. Some believe the last meal reflects the last supper of Christ while others trace back the tradition to an expression of reconciliation of the condemned (by accepting the meal he forgives the executioner or state). Others believed it quieted the soul of the condemned and prevented him from returning as a ghost.
Whatever the reason, this is one of the longest standing tradition in the world. It is not a reflection of a sense of guilt for the execution but of a sense of mercy of society. Even the Israelis gave Adolf Eichmann a final wish for the meal (he asked for a red wine). It has been recognized as a gesture of mercy for centuries of condemned people from Ancient Greece to present time, but no longer in Texas.
Brad Livingston right), executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, issued this statement in response to Whitmire (left): “I believe Senator Whitmire’s concerns regarding the practice of allowing death row offenders to choose their last meal are valid. Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made. They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit.”
It is a gratuitous act of denial by the state that deprives a condemned man a small measure of comfort before an execution.
Update: A former prison chef as offered to make last meals for free to preserve this tradition. Despite this commendable offer, the decision appears more based on retributionist and budgetary concerns.