Texas ends the tradition of allowing death-row inmates final meal choice


Click to follow

Some have chosen lobster tails, others went for strawberries and whipped cream.

The most popular option is a cheeseburger with french fries. But from now on, being put to death by the state of Texas will no longer involve any such culinary treat.

The Lone Star state's famously busy death row facilities have decided to end the time-honoured tradition of allowing a condemned man to choose his final meal. Instead, they will be served the same meal as other inmates.

Officials blamed the move on growing abuse of a system intended to represent a small gesture of compassion to men and women who are about to enter the execution chamber. Prisoners, they say, have been requesting ever-more elaborate – and expensive – meals.

The last straw was Lawrence Russell Brewer, a notorious white supremacist who was put to death on Wednesday for the racist murder of James Byrd Junior, a black man who was chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged along a road in 1998.

Brewer requested a last supper of two chicken steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecued pork, three fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream, and peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.

It was delivered to his cell, at the death row facility near Huntsville, at around 4pm. But he told prison officers that he was no longer hungry. They were ordered to remove it.

The petulant gesture met with outrage from Texan politicians. ''Enough is enough,'' state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs its justice committee, wrote to death row officials. ''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.''

Within hours of his letter being made public, the policy of allowing a final meal was abandoned. ''Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made,'' responded Brad Livingston, the director of the Huntsville facility. ''They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit.''

The tradition of a final meal stretches back to ancient Greece, China and Rome, according to death-penalty historian K William Hayes. He told the Associated Press that its roots are believed to lie in the ancient superstition that providing the food will help ward off subsequent haunting by the condemned men or women.

Most US states where the death penalty is practised will continue to allow inmates to choose their last supper. But many already apply conditions. Florida imposes a cost ceiling of $40 (£25), for example. Other states restrict ingredients to those normally kept in prison kitchens. Beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks are universally banned, as is fine bone china.

Texas, which is the death penalty capital of the developed world, had until 2003 listed every final meal on its Corrections Department website. The tradition was abandoned because of complaints that the huge public interest in the dietary preferences of recently dead people was distasteful. But that didn't stop the publication of a cookbook called Meals To Die For. Written by an inmate chef, it contained favourite recipes of the soon-to-die. They included Gallows Gravy, Rice Rigor Mortis and Old Sparky's Genuine Convict Chili, a dish which paid homage to the electric chair.

Opponents of the death penalty, who have been energised this week by the highly controversial execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, said they applauded the move by Texas. They have long argued that serving a final meal adds a misleading appearance of humanity to the business of capital punishment.

''I am totally opposed to capital punishment, but I certainly don't understand the logic of a last meal, and the way it's turned into such a show,'' said Jim Harrington, who heads the Texas Civil Rights Project. The tradition had always been ''shameful,'' he added.

Last Suppers

*Tennessee death-row inmate Philip Workman requested in 2007 that his last meal – vegetarian pizzas – be donated to homeless people. Workman had been homeless when he was convicted of shooting a police officer in 1981. The prison denied his request, but community members forked out more than $600 to donate the pizza themselves.

*Hours before he was executed in 1995 for strangling an 85-year-old with a string of fairy lights, Thomas J Grasso asked for 24 steamed mussels, 24 steamed clams, a cheeseburger from Burger King, spare ribs, two large milkshakes, a tin of SpaghettiOs with meatballs, half a pumpkin pie and strawberries and cream. But the meal was not to his satisfaction, as he expressed in his last words: "I did not get my SpaghettiOs, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this."

*Before James Smith was executed in Texas in 1990 for murder and robbery, he requested "a lump of dirt" for his last meal. As dirt was not featured on the approved list of prison foods, he was given yoghurt instead.

*Victor Feguer, who was hanged in 1963 for kidnap and murder, asked for a single unpitted olive for his last meal. He reportedly thought it might grow into an olive tree from inside him, and hoped it would serve as a symbol of peace.