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Columns

October 1, 2011

Texas is making a killing on last-meal savings

Texas has not only made executing prisoners something of an art form, but is getting downright chintzy when it comes to providing the condemned a last meal.

No other state is close when it comes to sending criminals to meet their maker. Since 1976, Texas has executed 475. Virginia's a very distant second with 109.

Texas' governor, Rick Perry, is the undisputed champ when it comes to sheer volume in seeing folks off on their last mile. In Perry's 11-year tenure, Texas has executed 235 people, an average of more than 21 per year.

In the term of Perry's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush (a governor Perry would like to follow into the White House), the state executed 152, an average of more than 30 per year.

You may support the death penalty or you may not, but there's no denying there's a protocol that should be followed when it comes to that sort of thing.

Winston Churchill, in a different context _ defending a formal letter declaring war on Japan in 1941 _ said: "When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite."

So, depending on your circumstances, if you're going to be executed, you should be able to count on at least the following:

"¢ A blindfold.

"¢ A cigarette.

"¢ A last request.

"¢ Whatever you want for your last meal.

Not so fast, if you're living on death row in the Lone Star State.

It seems an inmate named Lawrence Russell Brewer ruined it for everybody Texas might bump off in the future when he ticked off a state legislator last week.

Brewer, you might recall, was involved in the heinous 1998 hate-crime dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

For his last meal, Brewer asked for two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.

Then, according to prison officials, he didn't eat any of it.

This burden on Texas' $164.5 billion two-year state budget did not sit well with Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege," Whitmire wrote in a letter to Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

So much for last-meal requests in Texas.

"Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made," Livingston said a few hours after hearing from Whitmire. "They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit."

Yeah, what an ingrate, going off to his lethal injection without eating his dinner.

"It's long overdue," Whitmire told The Associated Press. "This old boy last night, enough is enough. We're fixing to execute the guy and maybe it makes the system feel good about what they're fixing to do. Kind of hypocritical, you reckon?"

Yeah, we reckon.

But still, the idea of the condemned getting a last meal goes back at least to ancient Greece.

A Grecian urn that I recently unearthed in my backyard reveals the following account of a last-meal conversation just before the 399 B.C. execution of Socrates.

"Socrates, what in the name of Zeus are you eating?"

The elderly philosopher looks up to see his young student, Plato.

"A little Spanakopita," Socrates replies. "What's so terrible?"

"Spanakopita? Spanakopita?" says Plato incredulously. "That stuff will kill you. Do you know what's in Spanakopita?"

"Do I know what's in Spanakopita?" Socrates replies scornfully. "Of course I do. A little chopped spinach, some feta cheese, maybe a little ricotta cheese, too, some onions, scallions and eggs wrapped in phyllo pastry with butter and olive oil.

"Don't be such a schlemiel, Plato. Didn't I say at my trial that 'the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being?' Well, the same goes for unexamined _ and uneaten _ Spanakopita."

"Fat lot of good that testimony did you," says Plato. "They sentenced you to drink hemlock. Better you should be eating something better for you, like a nice moussaka with artichokes and zucchini."

"You know," says Socrates" "Listening to you nag is making the thought of drinking hemlock a lot more inviting."

"All right, Mr. Big Shot Philosopher," says Plato, "do you have a last request?"

"Well sure," says the old sage. "My last request is that no society ever becomes so petty and cheap that it denies a condemned man _ no matter what his crime _ whatever he wants for a last meal."

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-100, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak.

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