Texas ends 'last meals' for death row inmates
The furor arose after Lawrence Brewer, 44, a convicted murderer and self-described white supremacist, requested a last meal that included: 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.
Brewer had been condemned to die for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in the East Texas town of Jasper; the slaying drew international attention and led to state and federal hate-crimes legislation.
The meal was prepared at the prison kitchen at the Huntsville Unit where Brewer was being held and served shortly before he was executed Wednesday. Brewer chose not to eat it, prison officials said.
State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, was outraged at the meal request, which he considered outlandish. On Thursday, he shot off a letter to Brad Livingston, executive director of the state prison agency, demanding that prison workers stop preparing special last meals.
“He is a bad person who I don’t believe the state should be giving special conditions,” Whitmire said of Brewer in a Friday interview with The Times.
Whitmire said he has long disapproved of Texas' special “death row menu." The fact that Brewer didn't eat it “compounded everything,” Whitmire added, showing that the condemned man had “manipulated the system” by ordering “more food than a family of four can eat in a week.”
“The only regret that I have is that I should have done this sooner,” Whitmire said. “I think someone should be disciplined, quite frankly. Why didn’t somebody stop the nonsense?”
Livingston officially responded to Whitmire's letter Thursday, agreeing to end the practice that originated with the state’s first execution by electrocution back in 1924.
Whitmire -- who back in 2008 received threatening phone calls from an inmate via a cellphone smuggled onto death row -- said he's been receiving emails asking him to show more compassion for inmates in regard to last meals. He remained unmoved Friday.
“He gave none of those considerations to his victim. His victim was not given a last meal,” Whitmire said of Brewer, noting that he intends to ensure that the last-meals policy is not revived.
Kathryn Kase, interim executive director of Texas Defenders, a nonprofit organization that trains and assists lawyers who represent death row inmates, said the state's decision to end last meals shows a lack of "compassion for the condemned." The action "says more about us, I’m afraid, than perhaps was intended.”
“I’m very sorry that the state of Texas has chosen to send that message,” she said.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not track the cost of last meals, since they are prepared from food already in the prison kitchen, according to spokeswoman Michelle Lyons.
The most popular requests have been hamburgers, she said. Prison cooks have tried to honor all requests, she said -- if not in quantity, then in quality. For instance, Brewer requested a pound of barbecue, but received a smaller amount. Unreasonable food requests are not honored, she said. For instance, an inmate would not be given a Big Mac.
“It has to be something that we have the ingredients for, so they know they cannot request a T-bone steak or crab,” Lyons told The Times.
Earlier this month, Texas death row inmate Duane Buck ate his last meal of fried chicken, salad, French fries, fried fish, jalapeño peppers and apples before he was granted a reprieve by the U.S. Supreme Court, officials said.
It was not clear Friday whether other states planned to follow Texas in barring last meals of choice.
Georgia drew international attention Thursday when authorities executed Troy Davis, a convicted killer who many insisted was innocent.
Davis, 42, declined the opportunity to choose his last meal. But he was nonetheless offered a meal tray of grilled cheeseburgers, oven-browned potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw, cookies and grape beverage, corrections officials said in a statement.
He apparently refused to eat, according to reporters who witnessed the execution, insisting, "This will not be my last meal."
Some states limit the cost of an inmate’s final meal. Florida, for example, limits costs to $40, and the food must be bought locally.
Other states don't acknowledge final meals, or they allow inmates to bar public release of their final menu.
Virginia prisons limit offenders to items contained on the prison system’s 28-day rotating menu. Still, John Allen Muhammad, the "Beltway sniper," requested that authorities not disclose his last meal when he was executed in 2009. They complied.
The Texas prison system had listed final meals of each prisoner as part of its death row website. It removed meals from the list in 2003 after receiving complaints.
Among the more notable: Ricky Ray Rector, the brain-damaged Arkansas inmate who said he planned to save his pecan pie "for later"; Timothy McVeigh’s two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream and serial killer Aileen Wuornos’ single cup of coffee.
-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in College Station, Texas
Photo: Corrections officers keep watch from a guard tower outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit before the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer on Wednesday. Credit: David J. Phillip/Associated Press.