Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row" by Ty Treadwell and Michelle Vernon

How's this for a last meal: 24 tacos, 2 cheeseburgers, 2 whole onions, 5 jalapenos peppers, 6 enchiladas, 6 tostadas, one quart of milk and one chocolate milkshake? That's what David Castillo, convicted murderer packed in the night before Texas shot him up with a lethal injection. Or how about this: A dozen steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, a can of Franco-American spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a strawberry milkshake - all that went down the hatch of killer Thomas Grasso on the eve of Oklahoma's giving him the needle.

The United States remains one of the "civilized" nations to utilize capital punishment as a crime-fighting tool. Execution rituals have always varied slightly from state to state, not only in the method of death but also in the care and treatment of the accused during his final hours. One ritual that remains constant throughout all 38 states which have the death penalty is the act of feeding the condemned man a special last meal before execution. The quantity and quality of the food available to the inmate does vary, but each man or woman is always allowed to partake in one final feast before they shake hands with the Grim Reaper.

The ritual seems to be important not only to the inmate and to prison officials, but to the general public as well. Almost every newspaper article documenting an execution lists the condemned man's last meal alongside his last words and the other details of the execution, making one wonder why this tidbit of information is so greedily sought after. Do last meal menus somehow shed light on the inner psyche of the condemned man himself? Like a mystic reading tea leaves, do we hope to discover the reasoning behind a mad killers crimes by examining the gravy smears on his plate? Could a proven connection between cheesecakes lovers and axe-murderers aid law enforcement officials in solving crimes? Regardless of the reasons, it can truly be said that criminals arent' the only ones with an appetite for "last suppers". So dig in and enjoy!

I originally picked up this book for hubby dearest; he'd seen it in an appendix to one of the Walt Longmire novels by Craig Johnson. The back of the book (the blurb above) intrigued me, so when he finished it in about an hour, I picked it up right after him.

What did I learn from this book? Well, evidently if you're on Death Row and you've made it to your "last meal", gluttony is the name of the game. The number of last meals that included a nauseating amount of food really astonished me, considering that according to the authors, most inmates finished pretty much all of their feasts. I don't know how long one gets to eat a "last meal", although one entry did say that the meal was delivered in the afternoon, and most executions seem to occur in the wee hours of the morning. Still...that's a lot of food.

A lot of inmates have gone for "home-cookin'" type meals: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, etc. Some have gone more exotic, and most notably, Floridians ordered a lot of seafood. No surprise as they have ready access to it. Some states, however, require you to choose from items already stocked in the kitchen; Huntsville has the most requests for cheeseburgers, as they always have the ground beef, cheese, and buns on hand. Much as I love a good cheeseburger, I don't know that I'd choose it as a last meal.

There are some interesting little tidbits in the book that have nothing to do with the last meals themselves. For example, there have been more than 500 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and yes, Texas leads the pack with over 150 of those 500 (as of the publication date of this book, which was 2001). Men make up almost all death row inmates; women account for less than 2% of the sentences imposed, and only six women have been executed since 1976. (Women also tend to kill family members, and poison is their preferred...well...poison).

It's a morbid book, too, with lots of gallows humor, literally and figuratively. Normally this doesn't bother me, as I have a weird sense of humor anyway. But something about it this time didn't sit well with me. I can't put my finger on why exactly. I realize that several of those that have been executed were anything but respectful to their victims, so it's not as if the authors needed to be respectful of them. Still, it just struck me as a bit callous. Overall, though, I would recommend this. An interesting (and short) read.

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