For decades, Texas inmates scheduled to be executed had at least one thing to look forward to: a last meal. Earl Carl Heiselbetz Jr. ordered two breaded pork chops and three scrambled eggs in 2000. Frank Basil McFarland asked for a heaping portion of lettuce and four celery stalks in 1998. Doyle Skillern ate a sirloin steak in 1985.
But state prison officials decided on Thursday to end the practice of giving last meals to inmates about to be executed, their decision coming the day after they honored an elaborate meal request from Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the men convicted in the 1998 racially motivated dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper.
Before Mr. Brewer was executed by lethal injection in the Huntsville Unit on Wednesday, he was given the last meal of his request: two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.
The meal outraged State Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. In a phone call and letter to the executive director of the state prison agency, Mr. Whitmire asked that the agency end the practice of last meals or he would get the State Legislature to pass a bill doing so.
The prison agency’s executive director, Brad Livingston, responded hours later, telling Mr. Whitmire that the practice had been terminated, effective immediately, and that death row inmates scheduled for execution would receive the same meal served to other inmates in the unit.
“I believe Senator Whitmire’s concerns regarding the practice of allowing death row offenders to choose their last meal are valid,” Mr. Livingston said in a statement.
Mr. Whitmire said his opposition to last meals had little to do with the cost of the meals, when the state budget is stretched thin. He said it was a matter of principle. “He never gave his victim an opportunity for a last meal,” Mr. Whitmire said of Mr. Brewer. “Why in the world are you going to treat him like a celebrity two hours before you execute him? It’s wrong to treat a vicious murderer in this fashion. Let him eat the same meal on the chow line as the others.”
Mr. Brewer did not eat his last meal, and Mr. Whitmire said he felt that the inmate had ordered it in an attempt to “make a mockery out of the process.”
Officials with the prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said they did not have data on how much the last meals cost the state. They said the kitchen staff at the Huntsville Unit, where executions take place, tried to accommodate inmates’ requests “within reason,” using food in the prison kitchen. The requests are normally made about two weeks before the scheduled execution.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group based in Washington, said the decision to do away with last meals seemed petty. “If the last meal process has been abused, then maybe it warrants changing, but there are a lot more serious abuses that have gone on in terms of lack of due process in Texas,” Mr. Dieter said. “Inmates would much prefer a last lawyer to a last meal.”