Dining in with Capital Punishment

Article excerpt

The final-meal tradition has a long and curious history. In the U.S., some condemned prisoners opt for a bite of junk food, while at least one chose mom to cook his last supper.

With painfully ostentatious flair, and attired in an inscrutably related ethnic costume, Martha Stewart would lead TV viewers through the stages of meal preparation, waiting until the very end before adding her trademark quip, "It's a good thing." Alas, neither Martha nor a smartly embroidered napkin stood sentry at the table when Miguel Flores sat down to eat his last meal. As is the custom whenever a final meal is served on death row in Texas, it was prepared by a fellow inmate.

Was it a "good thing"? For Flores the last meal consisted of three beef and three cheese enchiladas (all with onions), four quesadillas, Spanish rice, pico de gallo, a bowl of jalapeno peppers, a cheeseburger with mayonnaise and ketchup, french fries, three Dr. Peppers served with ice and a banana split for dessert.

The last meal recently became a political issue when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued a press release pleading with condemned Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to abstain from ordering meat before he meets his fate. But the details and history of these last meals largely remain cloaked behind the emotional death-penalty debate. Currently, 38 states and the federal government authorize the death penalty as a means of punishment. Most document and release details of the final 24 hours of the condemned criminal's life, including his last meal and final words.

In fact, the Website of the Texas Department of Corrections (www. tdcj.state.tx.us) provides a list of the requests made by all 245 convicts executed there since 1982. An examination of the list reveals that the choices made by prisoners are as varied as the crimes committed and the personalities of the criminals themselves.

Some prisoners, such as David Castillo and Richard Beavers, opt for a "hungry-man" meal. Castillo requested 24 soft-shell tacos, six enchiladas, six tostadas, two whole onions, five jalapenos, six cheeseburgers, one chocolate shake, one quart of milk and a package of Marlboro cigarettes (which are prohibited by department policy). Beavers asked for and was served six pieces of french toast (with syrup, jelly and butter), six barbecued spareribs, six pieces of thoroughly burned bacon, four scrambled eggs, five well-cooked sausage patties, french fries with ketchup, three slices of cheese, two pieces of yellow cake with chocolate-fudge icing and four cartons of milk.

Then there are the minimalist diners. Stacey Lawton requested only ajar of dill pickles. David Clark fasted. Delbert Teague Jr. stood mute on the issue, but "at the last minute decided to eat a hamburger at his mother's request." Nearly 40 of the 245 persons executed made no special request or declined a last meal. According to Larry Todd, public-information director with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, whatever is given to inmates in the general prison population is offered when no specific request has been made. Several other death-penalty states follow the same practice.

In Texas, Todd tells Insight, "The inmate can request anything he wants as long as it is available within the prison system.... The chaplain may provide something special at an inmate's request. For example, one inmate requested a particular type of sauce, and the chaplain went to a local store to buy it."

What may constitute a final meal, however, varies with the prison system handling the execution. According to Debbie Buchanan, public-affairs assistant for the Georgia Department of Corrections, the last meal there may cost no more than $20 and, as in Texas, prison officials "must be able to obtain the ingredients from within the system." A prison food director is in charge of meeting the prisoner's request -- unless no special request is made, in which case Georgia provides a meal of steak and eggs. …