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Viewpoints

Banned in Texas: Last Meal on Death Row

September 30, 2011 11:42:06 am

By David J. Krajicek

Texas has gone and messed with a time-honored part of Death Row reporting.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, got steamed when he read about the final meal of the despicable Lawrence Brewer, executed last week for the racist murder of a black Texan named James Byrd Jr.

Brewer ordered a feast: a couple of chicken-fried steaks, a triple-decker cheeseburger, okra, fajitas, an omelet, a full pound of barbecued pork, a loaf of bread (white, of course) and ice cream.

And then he ate not a bite.

Whitmire concluded that the traditional last meal is nothing more than a Death Row perk. That seems about as twisted as barbed wire.

He fired off a bullying letter to Brad Livingston, the state’s prison boss, threatening to legislate against last meals unless this "extremely inappropriate" practice was ended.

The prison director didn’t need to be asked twice. The cynical view would be that he was waiting for the senator’s request.

"Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made," Livingston said. "They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit."

So reporters will now be able to discern a condemned Texan’s last supper simply by checking the daily Death Row menu.

That's too bad.

Details about last meals have been part of reporting—and the broader American culture—for a century.

Ruth Snyder had chicken Parmesan. Gary Gilmore had a burger and boiled eggs. John Wayne Gacy ate fried shrimp and KFC chicken. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock dined on shrimp and garlic bread. Ted Bundy had a steak. Tim McVeigh finished two pints of ice cream—chocolate chip.

Sure, it’s petty. But is it any more petty than what Texas has done?

And this new draconian rule is certain to spread to other states since politicians can’t resist any measure that dehumanizes convicts.

But the last meal is not merely an American tradition. It dates to the ancient civilizations and symbolizes the forging of an everlasting bond between the killer and the executioner—something akin to the Biblical Last Supper.

The final-meal theme is a favorite in American music, too, from Johnny Cash to Snoop Dogg. Jimmy Rogers, the late Chicago blues legend, wrote the last word on the subject in 1959, in his clever song “My Last Meal:”

Well, I heard the warden say I had one more day,
One last meal afore they carried me away.
He said if we don't got it, we'll go out an' get it.
‘Cause you don't have to go ‘til we get back with it.

The condemned man thought a minute, then placed his order:

Two dinosaur eggs over easy,

Fried in butter and not too greasy…

I want a zebra tooth, a tiger steak,

And a whole hippopotamus, well baked.

Now bring me a cup of crocodile tears,

Purple watermelon and some alligator ears.
And bring me two cross-eyed catfish
And some wavy gravy in a left-hand dish.

Now bring me an order of rattlesnake hips,
The split of his tongue and both of his lips.
Now you have my order so serve my dish
With a female banana I just can't resist.

Now go get my dinner…

If you ain't got it, go out an get it.
'Cause I ain't goin', ‘til you get back with it.

The man was no fool.

David J. Krajicek, a blues musician and true crime writer,  is a contributing writer to The Crime Report, and a member of the board of Criminal Justice Journalists. An earlier version of this blog appeared at Poynter.org. For a TCR Author’s Q&A on Krajicek’s most recent book, the Amazon Kindle e-book Death By Rock n’ Roll(Crimescape/RosettaBooks), please click here .  He’s also the author of “True Crime: Missouri, The State’s Most Notorious Criminal Cases” (Stackpole).

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