Here in America, some people are on opposite sides of the coin when it comes to the subject of execution of a prisoner, especially in the wake of a heinous crime. Some feel that we should take the ‘eye for an eye’ tactic, while others believe that, we should take the higher road allowing the prisoner to serve out their sentence until the end of their days. While that remains a hotly debated topic, 30 states, including the federal government, and the US military are in favor of execution. But what still has some scratching their heads, is why prisoners get a last meal request?
Why should prisoners get some semblance of mercy?
It’s a privilege, no doubt. No laws are in place to support this tradition. In fact, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice no longer allows a last meal to prisoners because of one condemned inmate who took his final request to the next level. Lawrence Brewer, who with accomplices was convicted in the hate crime enhanced conviction of murder of James Byrd Jr., an African American man, who was chained by his ankles and dragged from the back of a truck in 1998. Brewer, the night before his execution of lethal injection was offered his final meal request. Whether to make it a final “F-U” to show off his contempt, or to make a joke of it, he ordered two steaks, a triple-meat cheeseburger, a cheese omelet , a large bowl of fried okra, three fajitas, a pint of ice cream and a pound (0.45kg) of barbecue meat. All of which went untouched. The very next day after his execution, the state of Texas decreed that the condemned will no longer be given the privilege of requests, and instead will eat the same chow, they’ve eaten during their stay behind bars, like any other prisoner.
Some states are a bit more generous and allow prisoners to eat a final meal with their warden (sometimes guests), who still oversee their execution. It’s up to the prisoner whether they’d like to attend, but the courtesy of invitation is still given.
Tradition leads back, like most governable policies to Christian religious practices. Iconically, the Last Supper, where Jesus had invited his disciples to dine with him one last time before he turned himself in to the Roman authorities. This included the invitation of the traitorous Judas Iscariot. The idea was to make peace with the condemned’s executioner, ‘breaking bread’ with them. The offering of a last meal has been practiced since the days of medieval Europe. It gives prisoners that last bit of choice in their life and control a small piece after losing it all after being convicted.
As with most traditions, superstition has a bit of a hand in the ritual gesture. Handed down from the early Europeans, many believed a well-fed, and pleased prisoner would lessen the chances of their executioners to be haunted by a vengeful ghost. If the prisoner was displeased, it was thought to have brought the wrath of a malevolent spirit. Not that prolonged medieval, torturous mistreatment while incarcerated would’ve provoked any of that…. nah.
Some of the choices by prisoners, were studied as a glimpse into a convicted killer’s mind. Some opted out of contempt, some order something that reminds them of a simpler, familiar, or happier time.
Sometimes the request is strange but hidden behind it is a request that hides a deeper meaning. Take Victor Feguer, a drifter convicted of murdering a young doctor in Dubuque, Iowa, for example. Hanged in 1963, Feguer requested a single olive, and asked that the olive pit be placed in his shirt pocket before he was buried. A strange request indeed, unless you already knew that an olive pit is a symbol of rebirth.
Debated most as much as the execution itself, the final meal is seen as one last act of kindness despite their misdeeds, almost to say, ‘it’s business, not personal’. But some view that should be taken away as well, to make them suffer as much as the family of their victims. To the prisoners, it’s a last chance to speak out, whether in defiance, a final joke, or see what could’ve been (One Jewish inmate ordered a ham sandwich, instead of a Kosher meal, just to see what it was like). No matter your feelings, it shouldn’t matter if they eat something before, they’re to be executed, they’ll definitely get their just desserts, maybe a bit of I-scream after…