Last Meals: A Menacing/Humane Feature of the Death Penalty

Last time I claimed that the death penalty is always a cruel and menacing happening regardless of any attempts by the state to stage the execution process as if it is humane.

This time I’ll support ^^that claim^^ by taking a close look at one aspect of the execution process—last meals.

Let’s do a macabre but potentially-interesting thought experiment. Suppose, just for a moment, that for some reason you’re aware of the exact moment of your death. Suppose, also, that in anticipation of that moment you’ve decided to prepare a last meal. You can choose whatever you want, within the realm of reasonable possibilities. Have you supposed?

What did you choose to eat? More importantly, why? What feelings and desires would guide that decision? What would the meal say about you as a person? Would your last meal be in some way a meaningful act or essentially the same as any other meal? This is hypothetical; there aren’t really any right or wrong answers.

The good news is that in all likelihood you will never actually pick a last meal. So for you and for most other people it remains a thought experiment.

One more question: what do you make of the fact that death row inmates are often allowed to make last meal requests?

Maybe you don’t really care, which is fine. But a lot of people find the last meal to be a site of fascination and great importance. It’s not typically seen as a meal like any other meal. The last meal of condemned is thought to provide a sort of window into the mind of the condemned, in like manner as how you might hope that your own hypothetical last meal would say something important about you. And the last meal of the condemned is important in a more general sense, too, as it’s thought to be part and parcel of moral logics that are attached to the happening of state-sponsored executions. That’s a lot to pin on just one meal, I know.

But consider, for instance, the series of events that led to Texas’ 2011 decision to discontinue the practice of providing last meals. State Senator John Whitmire, a legislator with significant sway in state criminal justice policy circles, made it clear to the state prison agency that he would attempt to pass legislation to end the practice of the last meal if the agency did not take steps to do so on their own. Whitmire, apparently, had long been opposed to the practice, but it was the highly charged political platform he found (or produced, perhaps) in the last meal request of Lawrence Russell Brewer that finally allowed him to make the last meal a political issue. Brewer, who was convicted for his involvement in a racially motivated murder, was given for his last meal “a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meatlover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanutbutter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.”

State Senator Whitmire framed the episode essentially as a breach of justice: “He never gave his victim an opportunity for a last meal. Why in the world are you going to treat him like a celebrity two hours before you execute him? It’s wrong to treat a vicious murderer in this fashion. Let him eat the same meal on the chow line as the others.” Worse still, from Whitmire’s perspective, was that Brewer did not eat his meal. It is fairly common, as it turns out, for inmates to eat little or none of their requested last meal, but Senator Whitmire interpreted Brewer’s failure to eat his last meal as an attempt to “make a mockery out of the process.”

Whitmire, of course, did not have any way of knowing why Brewer chose to order what he ordered, nor were the reasons for Brewer’s choice to not eat available to him. Brewer’s meal was plucked out of its context and recast as a scene in a virtual spectacle. And the last meal, in so far as it is part of the death penalty’s virtual, public spectacle, is never just a meal. When the last meal is assumed to be significant facet of death penalty logics, whether they are pro or anti-death penalty logics, it becomes a window into the moral worlds of both the condemned and the process of justice itself. This point is perhaps most obviously expressed in a letter to the editor that the New York Times ran in response to their story on Texas’ final last meal. The letter, written by Claudia Couch read, in full:

Texas’s abrupt disposal of the practice of offering the condemned a last meal of choice is disquieting, signaling an offhanded disregard for the moral values deeply encoded in the longstanding tradition.

The custom of the last meal acknowledges the humanity of the condemned, both in the manner of offering a meal and in the fundamental self-assertion inherent in making food choices.

But the tradition also holds significance for the community, which is therein reminded to approach executions with thoughtfulness and humility. These values should not be gratuitously discarded, certainly not because of grandstanding by one state senator who objected to the last meals.

Couch’s letter to the editor, when placed beside Whitmire’s statements, reveals the tensions inherent in what I’m soon going to call the menacing/humane logic of the modern death penalty. Couch’s letter does not read, at least not easily, as an abolitionist letter. The concern is not that state sponsored killing might be uncalled for in general but rather that the state might kill in an uncalled for way. The last meal is taken to be evidence that the state is capable of humane killing. It shows that the sovereign is measured, that it respects the essential humanity of the condemned, and that it is, in some sense, gracious towards the condemned even as the sovereign carries out proportional justice’s mandate to take the life of the one who took a life. The last meal, in other words, demonstrates that state sovereignty does not partake in cruelty.

However, what some view as a lack of cruelty others will be more inclined to view as a breach of justice. Whitmire charged that the state’s willingness to fill Brewer’s last meal request elevated Brewer’s status in such a way that the terms of proportional justice had been compromised. The state extended humanity to the condemned but the condemned, through his inappropriate response, showed himself to be unworthy of the state’s gesture. The last meal, then, serves as an expression of the state’s powerful sovereignty even as it aims to maintain an image of humane sovereignty. The menacing/humane death penalty, as it is presented through virtual spectacle in part by last meals discourse, allows the condemned to express their humanity in whatever way they choose so long as no force powerful enough to curtail the last meal practice finds their choices uncouth.

So you can see how the last meal starts to become a morally charged item for those who participate in conversations related to the death penalty. Eating carries importance, eating is a social and even intimate act that carries deeply held values, but food choices are deeply ambiguous. The last meal requests of the condemned—and this will become even more clear in a moment—can mean just about anything.

We’ve talked about outsider’s perceptions of the last meal, but we’ve not yet tried to consider the ways in which the condemned might experience their last meal. It would be easy to think that the State’s habit of extending a last meal to death row inmates is an essentially humane, benevolent, or even gracious act, but this is very clearly not the case if we start to consider the plight of the condemned.

In his seminar on the Death Penalty, Jacques Derrida pursues a line of thought related to cruelty and time. His suggestion is, in short, that there’s a fundamental cruelty involved with the State’s attempt to control precisely the time of someone’s death. By claiming to control the exact moment of the condemned one’s death the sovereign State imposes cruel constraints on the ways in which condemned people experience time itself. Derrida posits as much in suggesting:

what is certain, and trivial—and you will easily agree with me on this—is that if there is some torture, torturing, cruelty in the process of the condemnation to death, what is most cruel and the cruel itself, the crux, is indeed, beyond everything, beyond the conditions of detention, and so many other torments, the experience of time.

It is cruel for the condemned to live with the knowledge and accompanying experience that comes with the precise knowledge of their time of death, even if that death seeks to be humane in its implementation.

We can find some evidence in the death row/last meal literature, however anecdotal, that serves to partially corroborate Derrida’s claim. Robert Johnson, in Death Work A Study of the Modern Execution Process, offers the following comment on the last meal:

The mood becomes more somber and subdued during this final period, as the execution draws near. Though, as noted earlier, one prisoner ate a hearty last meal in the ostensibly congenial company of a deathwatch officer, most eat little or nothing at all. At this point the prisoners, in a last ditch effort steeped in denial, may steadfastly maintain that their executions will be stayed. The pathos of this effort comes through even in the retelling. One man proclaimed that his execution to be “inconceivable.” Such bravado is belied by the prisoners’ loss of appetite, which reveals deeper doubts and fears and is taken by the officers to be a sign of weakening resistance. “You can see them going down,” said one officer. “Food is the last thing they got on their minds.”

Johnson notes, also, that at least one death row inmate identified the last meal ritual as “barbaric and cruel.” And while it is possible to find secondhand sources in which the condemned evaluate the last meal in a positive manner, most prisoners seem to view the last meal as yet another cog in the cruel machinery of death. The sovereign State, by condemning the prisoner to death at a known time, creates for the condemned an unlivable and inhumane experience of time. Then, at the moment the condemned is experiencing time in the most inhumane way possible, meaning in the days and hours preceding their execution, the sovereign asks them to practice their human agency as if they were (in a limited sense) a free actor. The condemned is presented with the possibility of inhabiting a different time and space through otherwise unavailable food choices, but this seemingly humane gesture can only happen under conditions that render the condemned unlikely to experience the last meal in the sense that it is presumably intended. These cruel/humane tensions and competing meanings are part of the last meals identity, so to speak, whether the last meal is considered as an actual happening in the life of the condemned or as a vignette in the menacing/humane virtual spectacle of the death penalty.

The last meal then, as part of a menacing/humane death penalty, is very much ambiguous. Compassion and cruelty sit at the same table in the happening of the last meal, and that very ambiguity allows the last meal to serve as a tool in both the death penalty supporter and abolitionist’s toolkits. Michael Owen Jones, while discussing abolitionist appropriations of last meal narratives, writes that “those contesting retributive justice, particularly in regard to the mentally handicapped, sometimes start or end an essay with reference to a meal request.” In cases like these the meal request is framed in such a way as to indicate that the condemned is “childlike” or in some way unfit to fully understand the implications of their crime or the supposed justice and rationality of their punishment. Whereas the pro-death penalty advocate sees the last meal as a venue in which the condemned expresses their humanity and thereby underwrites the appropriateness of the death penalty, the abolitionist seeks to present the last meal as an indication of the death penalty’s inappropriateness given the (apparently obvious) cognitive limitations of the condemned as determined by their meal choices.

You can find abolitionist logics largely similar to those mentioned above on display in a number of recent photography projects. Such as this one, or this one, or this one.

The basic idea, in all three cases, is that the audience for the photos will find something macabre and distasteful (pun intended, obviously) about the practice of the last meal, and that the audience will then direct those negative feelings towards the practice of capital punishment in general.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at these and other similar lines of argumentation, suggesting that for abolitionists it is ultimately inadequate to merely expose the cruelty of the death penalty.


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  1. Pingback: A Short History of the Executioner | Follow Me Here...

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