Last week, following the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, Texas State Senator John Whitmire (D) contacted the head of the state prison agency to demand that the practice of allowing a prisoner to choose a last meal be ended immediately.
Texas executes more people than any other state, and their death row process has been under scrutiny. For example, in 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the murder by arson of his three daughters, which he almost certainly did not commit. Yet Governor Rick Perry, among others, have done their best to write off this wrongful execution as “business as usual” even though the Texas Fire Commission had ruled that the original evidence collected against Willingham was deeply flawed.
So why abolish the last meal? Well, part of the reason is that Brewer kind of made a mockery of the age-old tradition of the last meal–ordering
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.
and then not eating any of it, saying he wasn’t hungry. Plus, Brewer was totally unrepentant for his heinous crime, telling the local news: “as far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” Perhaps his unrepentance was part of what irked Sen. Whitmire; perhaps, as Anne Emanuel says, it was a “diversionary” tactic to deflect attention from the sloppiness that seems to characterize Texas death row process.
But why abolish the last meal altogether? Florida, for example, grants its condemned a last meal of their choice, but ingredients must be purchased locally and cost no more than $40. Abolishing the last meal, to me, seems graceless.
I should come out and say that I think the death penalty itself needs to be abolished. The execution of Troy Davis on the same night as Brewer was a case in which an enormous amount of evidence pointed to Davis’ innocence, not unlike the Willingham case. But the truth is, I don’t think that Brewer–though unrepentant and guilty–should’ve been put to death either. There are a lot of reasons why I deplore execution, which I won’t go into here, but the simplest are these: I don’t believe anyone has the right to take what only God can give, and I believe that putting people to death–even guilty people–destroys the souls of those who do it. (It must be noted that the family of Brewer’s victim held a vigil for Brewer and opposed his execution to the end.)
So, obviously, for me, the last meal is a small issue beside the huge one of a consistent life ethic. But I find myself really bothered by the fact that Texas has chosen to end this ancient tradition because it strikes me as needlessly graceless. The last meal is, traditionally, an act of grace–often given along with the Sacraments, in fact. It’s an act of grace because, obviously, the last meal is gratuitous–the condemned having no “need” of nutrition in his or her final hours. And it is an act of grace because accepting food is a sign of trust and peace. (In Louisiana, the prison warden traditionally eats the last meal with the condemned. I can’t seem to contemplate this without tears in my eyes.)
The last meals that prisoners choose seem to say so much about them. A number of artists have even made projects of artfully portraying last meals. It seems to me that after years on death row with no dignity or chance to choose anything, the offer of a final meal of one’s choice is a glimmer of grace.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible that the Texas death row process could seem any more callous and graceless than it already does. But they’ve done it.