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The last meal: Part of death row lore

Published: Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 8:00 a.m. CDT

ORLANDO, Fla. — On the last day of their lives, Florida murderers Clarence Hill and Angel Nieves Diaz asked for taco fixings.

Tampa rapist Oba Chandler ate two salami sandwiches on white bread and half a peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwich.

Panhandle killer Arthur Rutherford requested fried green tomatoes, fried freshwater catfish, fried eggplant, hush puppies and sweet tea.

The men were part of a tradition that will play out again Nov. 12, when Orange County rapist and killer Darius Kimbrough is scheduled to die by lethal injection.

Most recently, William Happ, who killed a Lauderdale Lakes woman, ordered a 12-ounce box of assorted chocolates and 1 1/2 quarts of German chocolate ice cream before he was executed Tuesday.

Last meals are a way to provide humane treatment in a dignified death penalty procedure, said Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jessica Cary.

They also distinguish executions from the criminal slayings the condemned committed, said Daniel LaChance, an assistant professor of history at Emory University who studies capital punishment.

“The last meal is part of the process to demonstrate there is no malice on the part of the people who carry out the execution,” said Bob Dekle, who teaches at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and was the chief prosecutor in the Ted Bundy murder case.

The definitive origins have been lost over time, but the tradition is thought to go back to ancient Greece and Rome. The biblical verse from Isaiah 22:13, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” also may have been an influence, some scholars say.

Acceptance of the meal originally symbolized forgiveness to the executioner and justice system, said Katheryn Zambrana, who teaches a course at the University of Florida on the death penalty.

In Florida, last meals must cost no more than $40, be purchased locally and prepared at the prison. No fast food allowed, Cary said.

John Spenkelink, the first murderer to be executed in Florida after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, shared a flask of Jack Daniel’s whiskey with the prison superintendent, who came up with the idea, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website.

People got upset, thinking it was unseemly and he didn’t deserve the privilege, Dekle said. Today, no alcohol is allowed.

Some inmates take the opportunity to indulge at a time when calories don’t count.

Jacksonville murderer Allen Lee Davis, for instance, requested lobster tail, fried potatoes, a half-pound of fried shrimp, 6 ounces of fried clams, half a loaf of garlic bread and a quart of A&W root beer before his 1999 execution, according to published reports.

Others, such as serial killer Aileen Wuornos, decline a last meal. She drank a cup of coffee about nine hours before her execution.

A few use the occasion to make a religious or political statement.

Jonathan Nobles took the Eucharist in place of food. Odell Barnes Jr. requested “truth, equality and world peace.” Robert Madden asked that his meal be donated to a homeless person. All were executed in Texas, the U.S. state that executes the most inmates.

In Florida, condemned prisoners are served breakfast at 6 a.m. on the day of their execution. They are given a last meal about 10 a.m. and allowed to eat it with visitors present.

Critics say last meals are an undeserved perk. But others see them as a fleeting gift of freedom.

“These last meals — and last words — show the state is democratic and respects individuality even as it’s holding people accountable,” LaChance, the Emory professor, said. “As horrible as (is) the deed they’ve been convicted of, the person still has some kind of dignity that we’re acknowledging.”

Texas in 2011 abolished an 87-year tradition of last-meal requests after a white supremacist requested a banquet, then did not eat it, according to published reports.

Lawrence Brewer, who dragged James Byrd Jr. to death behind a pickup in a highly publicized 1998 slaying in Jasper, asked for:

—Two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions

—A triple bacon cheeseburger

—A cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos

—A bowl of fried okra with ketchup

—A pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread

—Three fajitas

—A meat pizza

—A pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream

—A slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts

—Three root beers.

He did not receive the huge quantities requested, but a state senator still complained to the head of the prison system.

“The last meal is not an argument of whether you agree with the death penalty,” Zambrana, the University of Florida instructor, said. “It comes down to how do you treat one human being when you’re about to take someone’s life.”

News reports of executions almost always include information about the last meal, which experts say feeds the public’s curiosity and offers a voyeuristic look into a world most people will never experience.

So do books, blogs and websites. Among them are The Last Meals Project, Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row and Meals to Die For, which includes recipes from a former Texas death row cook.

“We always think of food as being a very social thing, a very nice thing,” said Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York, N.Y. “A humane, warm gesture before we execute them — I see it as just another ambivalence we have about the death penalty.”

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