A single olive sits on a plate. On either side of the plate are two hands, in handcuffs, holding a knife and fork.
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A green mountain, flecked with brown, slowly melted in front of Timothy McVeigh as he waited in a cramped cell at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind. McVeigh had been convicted and sentenced to federal execution in 1997 for perpetrating a devastating act of domestic terrorism, the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, which killed 169 people.

After an extensive series of trials and appeals lasting nearly four years, McVeigh was granted his last meal, a final rite given to death row inmates around the world. Only one day before his scheduled execution, the condemned McVeigh choked down two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream, his special meal request. 

In 2011 in Jackson, Ga., former security guard Troy Davis, convicted for murder, was executed like McVeigh. In the ensuing decade, Davis’s guilt has been heavily questioned, with seven of the nine witnesses to his alleged crime recanting or altering their testimony. Georgia officials have cited police coercion and racial bias as factors that contributed to the miscarriage of justice. In his final hours, Davis declined a special meal and was offered the prison meal tray. Refusing to eat, the Georgia State Prison honored Davis’s last request, a single bottle of the prison’s grape juice.

Examining American inmates’ last meal requests offers a window into the complex nature of capital punishment in the United States. More than just a sentimental conclusion to a dehumanizing process, final meal requests are an inmate’s last opportunity for personal expression. While some last meals highlight personal religious beliefs, others protest the conditions of the American prison system and many question the morality of government-sanctioned killing. Exploring final meal requests as an individual statement reveals death row inmates’ mindsets and probes the eternal question: does the U.S government have the right to sentence people to death?

Despite the stance of a great number of Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, against capital punishment, execution rates are the highest in strongly Christian states. In Iowa, convicted murderer Victor Feguer attended an all-night Roman Catholic vigil before consuming his last meal, a single pitted olive. Feguer kept the pit in his pocket during his execution in hopes that an olive tree would grow from his grave as a symbol of peace. Similarly, in accordance with Christian tradition, in 2017, Arkansas native Ledell Lee selected Holy Communion as his final meal. 

So why does it matter that some inmates chose religious rites as their final meal? The significance can be found in their statement of acceptance and remorse. On death row, numerous prisoners convert to organized religion (particularly Christianity in the U.S.) and promote positive change from behind bars. Stanley Williams, the founder of the Crips gang, published an anti-gang-violence book. William Parker promoted peace through Buddhism. Pope Francis urged a halt on Kelly Gissendaner’s execution after she earned a theological degree and dedicated her life to social justice. While many might be skeptical about death row conversions, expressing remorse and promoting positive change post-conviction could indicate the efficacy of restorative rather than punitive justice. In this way, religiously-affiliated final meals such as Feguer’s olive and Lee’s Holy Communion lead to questions about whether people who attempt to rectify their past actions ought to be executed. 

On the other hand, final meals can support the pro-death penalty stance, whose advocates are doubtful of death row transformations and argue that condemned inmates are beyond reform. Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed for a murder in Texas, used his final meal privilege to mock the American prison system. In a deliberately expensive and outlandish move, Brewer requested fried okra, a bacon cheeseburger, a meat lover’s pizza, one pound of barbecue, two chicken fried steaks, three fajitas, a pint of ice cream and peanut butter fudge. The state honored Brewster’s request but after he refused to eat any of it, Texas banned inmates’ right to a final meal. In his case for abolishing the final meal in Texas, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, cited Brewer’s case, stating, “He didn’t give his victim any comfort or a choice of last meal.” Brewer’s role in greater discussions about capital punishment reflects how death row meals as a form of protest can affect capital punishment legislation. In Brewer’s case, his lavish banquet mocked the federal system and led to the final meal abolition in Texas. 

Brewer’s final meal had a ripple effect beyond the prison walls and into the American government in favor of the death penalty. However, the hotly debated Supreme Court case, Rector v. Arkansas, highlights a final meal request that anti-capital punishment advocates cite as a miscarriage of justice. In 1991, Rickey Ray Rector was executed in Arkansas. His lawyer attempted to appeal his sentence on the grounds of mental incompetence, but three mental evaluations deemed Rector competent for execution. For his last meal, Rector received steak, fried chicken and pecan pie. Due to his traumatic brain injury, Rector asked the guards to save the pecan pie “for later.” Rector’s unusual request led officials to believe that he was unfairly tried and was in fact not sufficiently mentally capable to understand the circumstances of his crime and execution. 

At their core, death row final meals are a prisoner’s last chance to express themselves before entering the execution chamber. Evaluating the significance of the last meal as an expression of belief and protest is essential to understanding how such choices affect questions of morality and equal legislation. In the United States, defendants convicted of killing Black people are 17 times less likely to be executed than those convicted of killing white people. In Texas, Black people comprise 11.8% of the state’s population, but 37.4% of people executed. United Nations human rights experts say that poorer individuals are at an immensely higher risk of execution. With 95% of death row inmates identified as having underprivileged backgrounds, many prisoners are at a disadvantage before legal proceedings begin.

To some, in a system where judicial proceedings are marred by bias and misconduct, final meals offer a rare window into prisoners’ uninhibited last testament. To others, final meals signify an unfair privilege given to those who deserve execution. Regardless of an individual’s opinion on the efficacy of capital punishment, reviewing last meal cases forces onlookers to examine their previously-held beliefs about inmates’ final hours.

Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at avercycr@umich.edu.