The long-standing tradition of allowing death row inmates one last special meal of their choosing before they enter the execution chamber ends today, said Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Livingston made the announcement just hours after receiving a letter from state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, in which the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee called for an immediate end to the practice he called an "extremely inappropriate" privilege.
"Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made," Livingston said in an emailed statement. "They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit."
Whitmire's letter to the TDCJ came in response to the last meal provided Wednesday night to Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist who was convicted for his role in the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr., a black man, in the East Texas town of Jasper. According to the Houston Chronicle, Brewer requested but did not eat a feast of a final meal: two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet, a large bowl of fried okra, three fajitas, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, and a pound of barbecue with a half loaf of white bread.
"I have yielded to TDCJ judgment in the past, but now enough is enough," Whitmire wrote. If TDCJ doesn't end the practice on its own, Whitmire wrote, he plans to pass a law that will stop it. "Death row inmates before execution should be fed the same meal as any other inmate on the unit the day of the scheduled execution."
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he is opposed to the death penalty, but he agreed with Whitmire's sentiment. "It is anomalous that you would do this for anybody in prison," Harrington said. "To me, it sort of reflects sort of a guilty idea, some guilt that the person is going to be executed."
The last meal is a tradition that has been in place long before Texas even began executing criminals, said Jim Willett, director of the Texas Prison Museum. "Texas has done that since the state took it over in 1924," said Willett, who presided over 89 executions when he was warden of the Walls Unit in Huntsville, home of the death chamber. "I just always figured it was a matter of tradition. It was done back in Europe before us."
The most unusual item an inmate requested while Willett was death house warden was Irish sausage, he said. Commonly referred to as "banger" sausage, it's made of pork, eggs and bread crumbs in a casing. But, Willett said, the cook who made the last meals had no idea what Irish sausage was. "We found an inmate there who knew what it was and showed our cook how to fix it," he said.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said most states and countries that still use the death penalty have some sort of procedure for the inmate's last meal. On that final day, inmates are usually also allowed more time with familyand other arrangements are made, he said, in an effort to keep the condemned calm as they approach the death chamber.
"I think it actually serves the institution’s purpose more than it is a great benefit for the inmate," Dieter said. "I assure you few people are looking forward to that last meal."