I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…
Teresa Lewis was forty-one years old when she sat down to a dinner of fried chicken, sweet peas with butter, and an apple Pop-Tart. She washed it down with a twelve-ounce can of Dr. Pepper. I like Dr. Pepper myself, but I don’t think it would carry me to heaven, as I’m sure Teresa hoped when soon after she was strapped to a gurney and fed poison into her veins.
The last meals of the men, women, and sometimes children we have executed in the United States, and continue to execute, are a fascinating study in what seems important in the final minutes of lives whose possessors knew would end at a legally ordained point on the clock.
It took Angel Diaz a lot longer to die than it did to decide food had no importance at all to him in his last moments: he refused his last meal. Had he known he would writhe in the agony of a botched execution (not terribly uncommon) that lasted thirty-four minutes, he might have decided otherwise; one last good thing to take into the unknown.
Notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who made clowns and crawl spaces scarier than ever, went back to his roots for dinner: one dozen deep fried shrimp, a pound of fresh strawberries, and french fries surrounded the pièce de résistance: a bucket of original recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken. Gacy was born in Illinois and never saw Kentucky, but he managed three KFC restaurants and insisted colleagues call him “Colonel.”
Timothy McVeigh fancied himself a patriot and a warrior, but at the end was only a little boy: he took leave of his senses with two pints of mint chocolate chip in his stomach.
What Ricky Ray Rector ordered was less important than the fact he wanted to save his dessert for later. Ten years after Ricky Ray didn’t come back for his pecan pie, the Supreme Court banned the execution of people with mental retardation.
Stephen Anderson, the happiest looking serial killer I’ve ever seen, enjoyed two grilled American cheese sandwiches, an entire pint of cottage cheese, a veggie contretemps of hominy and corn, a piece of peach pie and a pint of chocolate chip, and a garnish of radishes. He was a man who enjoyed his food: he was finally caught while finishing up a meal he had cobbled together at the kitchen table of his latest victim, who lay nearby.
Everybody knows Ted Bundy. But who knew he’d settle for a traditional breakfast of steak and eggs? He really was an all American boy.
Ronnie Lee Gardner was a planner. He fasted for a day and a half before his last meal. Then he threw himself a party and watched the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy while munching lobster tail, steak, and apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The massive infusion of cholesterol might have killed him if the four sharpshooters who blew his heart apart hadn’t killed him first with what the Utah prisons director called “absolute dignity and reverence for human life.”
Cholesterol feasts have been common last meals. Allen Lee Davis, who at 350 pounds naturally was called Tiny, stuffed himself on lobster tail, home-fried potatoes, a half pound of fried shrimp, a paltry six ounces of fried clams, half a loaf of garlic bread, and a quarter-gallon of A&W root beer. They had to wheel him to the electric chair.
Victor Feguer was a quiet man who looked like a stock clerk, and was. The captain who guarded him during his ten days on death row in an Iowa prison called him a model prisoner. The Iowa governor phoned John Kennedy to ask clemency for his federal prisoner but Kennedy, who in eight months himself would fall to what some people believe was another government execution, declined. Feguer chose for his last meal a single olive, and asked that the pit inside it be buried with him so that it might grow into an olive tree, a symbol of peace. He was the last person executed in Iowa, which two years later abandoned the death penalty. He may be the only convicted murderer in the history of the world granted not only his last meal, but his last wish.
The case of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was among the most complex and controversial. Their last meal could not have been simpler: soup, meat, toast, and tea. Fifty years after their execution in Massachusetts, then governor Michael Dukakis declared they had been unfairly tried and convicted, and “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.” He said he would not pardon them, because they had done nothing to be pardoned for.
Ronnie Threadgill was unfortunate to have been convicted of murder in Texas, where so many men and women are executed that it’s no big deal, so the last meal he got was the same as what everybody else got: ghastly pale chicken, damp vegetable medley, instant mashed potatoes with a dollop of oily black gravy to die of, that looked like someone had thrown it all on a plate and spit in it.
Through no fault of its own, Texas did not execute the last enemy of the state listed here, whose final meal was bread, and red wine. My mother was a Texan, and worked much of her life to end the tradition of last meals served the condemned — not because she thought they didn’t deserve a special meal, but to end altogether the death penalty, which it is true has taken many bad people, but also many damaged ones, and also some good ones. I’m pretty sure she would have worked to save this good one, this Jesus of Nazareth, from his last supper. I know that when she lay dying, she was certain he would save her.
[NOTE: All of the last suppers mentioned here, except the last, last supper, were recreated by New Zealand photographer Henry Hargreaves, whose work was brought to my attention by my daughter, and can be seen here.]