By JONATHAN TILOVE
July 16, 2001
c.2001 Newhouse News Service
HUNTSVILLE, Texas _ It begins in 1982 with Charlie Brooks’ straightforward desire for a “T-bone steak, french fries, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, rolls, peach cobbler and ice tea.”
The 248th entry, dated June 26, 2001, was Miguel “Silky” Richardson’s more exotic hankering for a “chocolate birthday cake with `2/23/90′ (his wedding anniversary) written on top, seven pink candles, one coconut, kiwi fruit juice, pineapple juice, one mango, grapes, lettuce, cottage cheese, peaches, one banana, one delicious apple, chef salad without meat and with Thousand Island dressing, fruit salad, cheese and tomato slices.”
At http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/finalmeals.htm is one of the more macabre artifacts of the culture of capital punishment in America _ the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Final Meals Request Web site.
It’s a list built on comfort food, laden with gravy and light on sauce; nothing balsamic, nothing sauteed, and barely a hint of the spices in the middle range between salt and jalapeno peppers (though one man asked for jalapenos and tomatoes boiled with garlic and cumin).
Read aloud, with the right pauses, some even sound like bizarrely bittersweet, chicken-fried poems of parting.
Here is Ricky McGinn’s spare yet evocative entry for his last repast before his Sept. 27, 2000, execution. Note the use of repetition: “Chicken-fried steak with white gravy, french fries with white gravy, lots of salt and pepper, and sweet ice tea.”
Of course McGinn had the rare advantage that this was his second final-meal request. On June 1 of that year, he consumed his first last supper _ the ever-popular cheeseburger, fries and a Dr Pepper _ only to receive a temporary reprieve by former Gov. George W. Bush for DNA testing. That, however, served to confirm his guilt. In a between-last-meals interview with the San Antonio Express-News, McGinn said he very much enjoyed his first last meal but “caught a lot of flak” for its lack of imagination.
The Web site is the province of Larry Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its death chamber, located in the Huntsville Unit and known as the Walls.
Texas is state-of-the-art when it comes to executions, and state-of-the-art when it comes to informing the world about them. The state hung prisoners from 1819 to 1923, and electrocuted them from 1924 to 1964. (Visitors note: Old Sparky, the estimable electric chair, now resides at the Texas Prison Museum, also in downtown Huntsville. Lethal injection began with Brooks in 1982.)
Fitzgerald said the Final Meals page was created to provide the public and press with public information in as convenient a fashion as possible. As a rule, Fitzgerald said, American reporters appreciate the site and European journalists are appalled by it.
The site also allows a click on “offender information” for mug shots and a bit about the criminal and his crime. After reading about Ricky McGinn’s chicken-fried last supper, for instance, one can click over to get a look at a greasy blond 28-year-old and read that he was convicted of the rape and murder of his 12-year-old stepdaughter, whom he beat to death with the blunt side of an ax.
Some entries are haiku-like. The one for Delbert Teague Jr., executed on Sept. 9, 1998, for a robbery-slaying, reads as a piquant paean to mother love. “None. Last minute he decided to eat a hamburger at his mother’s request.” Carl Kelly, executed Aug. 20, 1993, for a killing spree in Waco, asked for “wild game or whatever is on the menu and cold lemonade.” He was served a cheeseburger and fries, and declined his last meal.
The meals are generally rooted in East Texas cuisine, with Brooks’ T-bone setting a precedent that has proved popular through the years. In fact, seven of the first nine men listed built their final meals on a T-bone foundation.
An austere patch begins with Charles Rumbaugh, executed Sept. 11, 1985, and his Southwestern takeoff of a prison classic, “one flour tortilla and water.” His menu was followed by Charles Bass’ “plain cheese sandwich” and Jeffery Barney’s “two boxes of Frosted Flakes and a pint of milk.”
Michael Evans, who cut a church pianist with a carpet knife while she prayed to God to forgive him, was the first inmate, on Dec. 4, 1986, to decline a last meal, an occasional choice through the years. Others ask for such non-menu items as “justice, equality and world peace,” “God’s saving grace, love, truth, peace and freedom,” and “justice, temperance and mercy,” the selection of a Dominican man who may have meant to request “justice tempered with mercy.”
Some requests are simple _ an apple, a jar of dill pickles, yogurt, some fresh-squeezed OJ. One man asked for whatever was on the menu that day, and ended up with a chili dog and beans.
Others are particular.
Frank McFarland, executed April 29, 1998, while still professing innocence of the rape and murder of a shoeshine girl, requested a “heaping portion of lettuce, a sliced tomato, a sliced cucumber, four celery stalks, four sticks of American or Cheddar cheese, two bananas, and two cold half-pints of milk. Asked that all the vegetables be washed prior to serving. Also asked that the cheese sticks be clean.”
David Gibbs, who used a butcher knife to cut the throats of two women whose apartment he was burglarizing, asked for a last supper Aug. 23, 2000, that suggested, as did many of the others, that it might be worth examining what evil lurks in bad cholesterol: “Chef salad (any dressing except oil and vinegar), two bacon cheeseburgers all the way (cut the onions), deep-fried homefries (with chili powder on top), pitcher of fruit-flavored milkshake, two Scotch eggs (boiled and packed in a sausage roll, battered and deep-fried and served with syrup), slice of pie.”
There are very occasional forays into lean cuisine, and leave it to a woman _ the pretty pickax killer Karla Faye Tucker, who became a cause celebre before her execution on Feb. 3, 1998 _ to order the closest things on the site to a ladies-that-lunch diet plate: a banana, a peach and a garden salad with ranch dressing.
Joe Gonzales Jr., who spent the shortest time on death row (252 days) of any inmate before being executed on Sept. 18, 1996, ordered just dessert _ “strawberry shake and cheesecake.”
The Final Meals page includes parenthetical notations when a request is denied. For example, William Prince Davis, executed Sept. 14, 1999, for the robbery and murder of an ice cream company manager, was doing all right with his request for “chicken-fried drumsticks, a bowl of chili, a bowl of cheese, five rolls, two bags of barbecue chips, a six-pack of Coke,” but when he asked for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter he was informed “(prohibited by TDCJ regulations.)” In Texas, the prisons are no-smoking zones, and a dying man is not allowed a last smoke, last beer or, as one inmate found out, a last chaw of bubble gum.
Davis appeared to take the denial of a smoke in stride, judging by his final statement, available online by clicking “last statement” at the TDCJ’s companion “executed offenders” page. After Academy Award-length remarks of apology and thanks, Davis finished up by adding,“Oh, I would like to say in closing, `What about those Cowboys?”’
Of course, it is impossible to know how satisfied any of these clients were with their choices. The meals are prepared from what’s available in the prison kitchen, by other inmates. Until recently that often meant Brian Price, who had been in the Walls unit since 1989. But Price, a San Antonian, cooked his last last supper in June and has since been released. Among his post-prison plans is publishing a cookbook based on his experience. Its title: “Meals to Die For.”