Texas Abolishes ‘Last Meal’ Before Executions

Texas is ending the time-honored tradition of allowing condemned men to pick their last meal before being put to death.

Texas is ending the time-honored tradition of allowing condemned men to pick their last meal before being put to death.

Reuters (“Fancy last supper requests off the menu on Texas death row“):

The Texas prison system abolished on Thursday the time-honored tradition of offering an opulent last meal to condemned inmates before their executions, saying they will get standard prison fare instead.

“Enough is enough,” state Senator John Whitmire wrote in a letter on Thursday to prison officials, prompting the move. “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.”

The letter was in apparent response to the dinner requested, but not eaten, by white supremacist Lawrence Brewer before he was put to death on Wednesday night for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. Brewer requested an elaborate meal that included a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, a meat-lover’s pizza, a big bowl of okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecue, a half a loaf of bread, peanut butter fudge, a pint of ice cream and two chicken-fried steaks. When it arrived around 4 p.m. at Brewer’s cell, he declined it all, telling prison officials he wasn’t hungry.

Whitmire, who chairs the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, threatened legislation if the prison system didn’t put an end to the practice, which rarely results in the inmate getting exactly what is requested anyway.

But a new law won’t be necessary. Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, replied that Whitmire’s concerns were valid and that the practice would halt immediately. The prisoners will be served “the same meal served to other offenders,” Livingston’s statement said.

Texas executes more people than any other state in America and most entire countries. So, I guess there are some cost savings to be had here. Still, this seems petty even in the context of killing a man.

I’m sympathetic to Whitmire’s argument that these people showed no mercy to their victims, so they don’t deserve any from us. These people are, after all, convicted killers who have exhausted years and years of appeals. But the “last meal” was always a sign that society, even in putting these men to death, recognized his humanity. Then again, some death penalty opponents actually applaud this change for precisely that reason:

Anti-death penalty activists weren’t bothered by the Texas move, saying the tradition always made the prison system look more merciful than it is.

Jim Harrington, who heads the Texas Civil Rights Project, described the grand last-meal tradition itself as shameful. ”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,” he said.

Brian Evans of Amnesty International agreed. ”It’s a minor thing compared with the fact that they are killing him,” he said. “The cruelty of the whole process is much larger than whether you get to pick the last meal that you eat.”

There’s not much doubt about that.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brewer’s last meal request was pathetic and it seems like it was just designed to piss the jailers off. But, yea, this seems incredibly petty. The “Last Meal” is a tradition that goes back to executions in frontier days as I understand it, I don’t see what’s so bad about continuing it.

  2. Mark says:

    “Cost savings to be had” Really? How much could this possibly save?

  3. Boyd says:

    @Mark: I think James was being a tad ironic there.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Boyd: Yes. It was a dig at the number of executions in the Lone Star State. But even if the meals averaged $100, it would be an insignificant cost.

  5. Boyd says:

    @ James:

    But the “last meal” was always a sign that society, even in putting these men to death, recognized his humanity.

    I understand what you’re saying there, but doesn’t that imply that the standard prison menu is inhumane? Regardless, I don’t see the benefit to anyone but the convicted murderer of allowing this traditional last meal request, and their benefit is pretty far down my list of Important Things, to say the least.

    And on top of that, since I’m back in Texas these days, my opinion on this actually matters! (Hey, let me enjoy my own little fiction, you fun-suckers.)

  6. Franklin says:

    I suppose if you really wanted to make your final mark, you should order a bunch of things with laxative effects.

    In any case, I’m not really concerned one way or the other about the final meal. I’m far more concerned with the fallibility of the justice system that can result in wrongful executions, and secondarily with the massive inequality to whom the penalty is applied.

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    If it were me, I think I’d be ok with losing the last meal. I’d really want a last cigarette, though, even though I gave them up long ago.

  8. Boyd says:

    @Rick Almeida: Ever since I quit smoking, I’ve maintained that smoking cigarettes is like alcoholism. You may not smoke anymore, but you’re still a smoker ’til the day you die.

  9. Brett says:

    It’s extremely petty. They spend a couple thousand dollars to execute the prisoner, but they can’t chip in $20 for a last meal?

  10. Franklin says:

    @Brett: They spend far more than that if you include all the legal fees from numerous appeals. I’ve heard it costs more to execute someone than keep him in prison for life.

  11. rosethornne says:

    Wow, how petty can you get?

    If we take away a person’s freedom then we take on the obligation to maintain that person at a level no worse than the poorest law abiding citizen.

    If we’re going to take away a person’s life, shouldn’t we at least be human enough to say ‘sorry you’re such a that creep you have to be put down like a rabid squirrel, but cheer up here’s a cookie’?

    So yeah, put a reasonable limit on it – how about the average that petty little politician guy spends on a night out – but don’t be inhuman jerks about it.

    This parsimony on the part of a clenched-butt no doubt millionaire politician is disgraceful and inhuman. In other words, I’ll bet he’s one of those faux-populist pretend teabaggers, greedy inhumanity IS their calling card after all.

  12. Rick Almeida says:

    @Franklin:

    They spend far more than that if you include all the legal fees from numerous appeals.

    Why would anyone factor the cost of litigation into the cost of the final meal?

    THIS CHICKEN COSTS 16 MILLION DOLLARS!!!!!!!!

  13. Rob Prather says:

    I was stunned that he would order a meal that ridiculous. Nobody could eat that much food in an hour or two. That said, it seems like a minor issue that the last meal is being done away with. It’s far worse that they’re killing people.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    Does this new policy also apply to the innocent people they execute?

  15. Ernieyeball says:

    Texas sez: “Yeah, and when they’re dead we’re gonna’ take ’em outside and run them over with a roach coach. You know, like beatin’ a dead horse.”