The dragging-death killer of James Byrd, Lawrence Russell Brewer, went to his Texas execution last week after ordering up a true pig-out for his last meal: two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions; a triple meat bacon cheeseburger with fixings on the side; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos; a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecue with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas with fixings; a Meat Lovers pizza; three root beers; one pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream; and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. When it arrived, he didn’t eat any of it. Texas authorities were annoyed, or insulted (“I make you a delicious meal, your favorite, and this is the gratitude I get?”), or something. Brewer’s wasteful order caused the state to re-consider the appropriateness of the tradition of the last meal accommodation for the condemned, and legislators decided to eliminate it entirely. Other states have begun to debate doing the same thing.
It’s time for the question that needs to start most ethics discussions: “What’s going on here?”
The tradition of the last meal is so old—thousands of years—that it has continued without most people, including prison officials, legislators, and law enforcement authorities, thinking very much about what its purpose is and whether it has any value at all. The United States just continued the tradition, without ever specifically articulating a rationale for it. Traditions in this condition—old, venerable, and taken for granted—are always at risk of vanishing as soon as a reason appears not to continue them, because nobody remembers what the original reason was for doing it in the first place. Thus Brewer’s perceived abuse of the tradition was enough to kill it, at least in Texas.
What are the reasons for the tradition? Researching around the web, I found a lot of theories and explanations from other cultures, including:
• An intentional evocation of the Last Supper
• A symbolic gesture from the state to say, “this isn’t personal”
• A symbolic acceptance of the verdict by the condemned
• A way for the condemned to make peace with “the host,” the state, by accepting the meal
• Acceptance of the meal symbolizing the prisoner’s forgiveness
• Giving the meal to the soon-to-be-executed as insurance against the murderer haunting the prison, or the executioner
• Prisoner control, using a large meal to soothe and calm the condemned before the execution
• Simple kindness
The fact is that it’s just a tradition now; nobody has challenged it or questioned it, probably for fear of looking like a heartless ogre. “You’re killing the guy, and want to take away his last hamburger? What’s the matter with you?” Brewer’s conduct, taken by the least sympathetic condemned man imaginable, allowed the tradition to be challenged openly, and voila! It’s gone!
Is Texas unethical to remove this small sliver of kindness from the capital punishment process? Here is an analysis that concludes no:
Brewer, true to his anti-social heart, figured out a way to use the tradition as a way to raise his middle finger to the State of Texas and the justice system, and Texas reasonably decided to remove the opportunity for future prisoners to take his lead. Texas was one of the states that accommodated any request for a last meal, and the thanks it got from Brewer was a symbolic spit in the eye. The government has a legitimate interest in maintaining its dignity and authority in law enforcement, and allowing those who have received the harshest of judgments from the state should not be permitted to defy and embarrass the justice system as a last obnoxious act.
I am more drawn to an analysis that concludes yes, however.
Yes indeed, Brewer was an all-time, award-winning ass-hole. Like the Starbucks squatters, he took advantage of the lack of restrictions on last meals to abuse the privilege. He didn’t care about all the future executed men (and there are sure to be a lot of them, this being Texas) who would be denied this small privilege because of him. He just wanted to get as much out of the accommodation as he could, and the rest of the world be damned—not such a surprising attitude from a doomed, murderous racist.
What does Texas accomplish by taking away the last meal right? It is punishing future prisoners for the act of a dead one: that’s unfair, and unjust. How likely is this to happen again, and if it does, why is it such a bid deal? Isn’t the state more resilient than to be unsettled by an excessive food order and an uneaten meal? For centuries, the last meal has symbolized official closure and compassion. It does no harm; it may so some good. To allow the likes of Lawrence Brewer to take it away is giving him power and significance that he doesn’t deserve.
Most of all, however, taking away the last meal is one more step toward making capital punishment into pure retribution and revenge, when its primary value ought to be symbolic. The death penalty should not be personal. It should be a solemn assertion that there is some ultimate limit on conduct that a citizen can engage in and still be worthy of support by the community and state. It is the conduct, the unspeakable crime, that capital punishment addresses, and killing the perpetrator is the symbolic response. Because its primary purpose is symbolic, the traditions associated with executions are important. This is ritual, not blood vengeance. The last meal, like the opportunity for final words, is an important gesture to acknowledge that it is a human being, not a mad dog, who is about to die. This is important for the state to remember, and the public as well. The more our system dehumanizes criminals, the more inhumane the justice system will become.
Texas was wrong. It could have addressed Brewer’s abuse of the tradition by putting a monetary limit on the cost of last meals, as Florida does ($40). As for Brewer not eating the feast he requested—so what? He may have been trying to spite Texas, or he may have lost his appetite, anticipating what lay ahead. We can blame Brewer for a lot, but we shouldn’t blame him for that.
[ Interesting related link: “The Last Meals Project”]