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Last-meal requests come to an end on Texas death row

Lawrence Russell Brewer ordered steaks, an omelet, fried okra, a cheeseburger, three fajitas, one pound of barbecue, a pizza, and ice cream

By Allan Turner
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Maybe it was the big bowl of fried okra with ketchup. Then again, it could have been the two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy and onions or the cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, and bell and jalapeno peppers.

Something -- maybe everything -- about condemned killer Lawrence Russell Brewer’s requested last meal left Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire with a nasty case of heartburn.

“It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege,” sniffed Whitmire in a terse Thursday letter to prisons chief Brad Livingston. “I have yielded to TDCJ judgment in the past, but now enough is enough.”

If Livingston did not pull the plug on the death-house tradition of customized last meals -- thought to date back 87 years -- Whitmire pledged to take matters into his own hands in the next legislative session.

Livingston promptly announced that, effective immediately, last meals will consist of whatever is on the menu for all prisoners at Huntsville’s Walls Unit, home of the state death house.

Whitmire’s letter, which came one day after Brewer was executed for the 1998 Jasper dragging murder of James Byrd Jr., brought immediate retorts from death-penalty opponents.

“I think it’s sad that our elected and appointed leaders are wasting their time talking about menus on death row when we have important issues like potential innocence and the validity of the entire death-penalty system that desperately need to be looked at,” said Elizabeth Stein, producer of KPFT-FM’s Execution Watch.

Prison activist Ray Hill defended the last meals as a practice steeped in Texas history. Doing away with the tradition, he said, is “cruel and extremely unusual.”

‘Showing a little mercy’

Crockett restaurant owner and former death row “chef” Brian Price suggested the senator’s complaints were grossly inflated because inmates rarely get extravagant meals they order.

“They only get items in the commissary kitchen,” he said. “If they order lobster, they get a piece of frozen pollack. They quit serving steaks in 1994. If they order 100 tacos, they get two or three. ... Whitmire’s just getting on a political soapbox.”

Price said he has prepared more than 200 last meals for condemned killers. He is author of the prison cookbook Meals to Die For.

Jim Willett, former Walls Unit warden and now director of the Texas Prison Museum, said allowing condemned inmates to order special last meals dates to at least 1924, when the state assumed responsibility for executions from counties.

The final meal has roots in pre-modern Europe, where executioners thought a fancy spread might quell the soon-to-be departed’s ghost.

“We were just following that tradition,” Willett said. “We were showing a little mercy.”

A number of death-penalty states, including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia, follow the practice, usually setting guidelines for elaborateness of the meals and the costs.

In Louisiana, prisons spokeswoman Pam Laborde said, the warden at Angola traditionally joins the soon-to-be executed inmate in his last meal. On one occasion, the warden paid for an inmate’s lobster dinner out of his own pocket.

In Texas, common requests include steaks, cheeseburgers and breakfast foods. Some inmates decline a final meal.

Brewer’s requested meal, though, pushed the boundaries.

Didn’t get sloppy Joes

In addition to the steaks, the omelet and fried okra, Brewer asked for a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, three fajitas, one pound of barbecue and a half loaf of white bread, pizza meat lover’s special, one pint of “homemade vanilla” Blue Bell ice cream, one slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts and three root beers.

Whitmire’s letter noted that the killer’s victim was not accorded such lavishness.

He called Brewer’s meal “ridiculous.”

“Death-row inmates before execution should be fed the same meal as any other inmate on the unit the day of the scheduled execution,” the Houston Democrat fumed. "... I hope that someone at TDCJ decides to use some good judgment.”

On Brewer’s execution day, Walls prisoners were fed sloppy Joes, navy beans, creamed corn and sliced bread.

Brewer ordered the over-the-top meal, prisons spokesman Jason Clark reported, but didn’t eat a bite.

The food later was discarded.