On Thursday, prison officials in Texas decided to end the practice of allowing condemned inmates to choose their last meal.
The day before, Texas had executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the men who chained James Byrd Jr. to a pick-up truck and dragged him to his death in 1998. But the state first reportedly granted Brewer the following request: two chicken-fried steaks, one pound of barbecued meat, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a meat-lover's pizza, three fajitas, an omelet, a bowl of okra, one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream, some peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts and three root beers.According to various reports, Brewer did not eat any of it.
The same day, in Georgia, another condemned man, Troy Davis, was offered the chance to request a last meal. He asked to have the same meal as the other inmates - a cheeseburger, slaw, baked beans, potatoes and cookies.
In a letter posted on the website of the NAACP, Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president and CEO of the organization, wrote that it was not the first time Davis had refused a last meal:
The last time Troy faced execution, in 2008, the warden brought in what was to be his last meal. But Troy refused to eat. Looking the prison staff in their eyes, he explained this meal would not be his last. He was vindicated when he received a last minute stay. Guards still remember this as a haunting moment, one rooted in Troy's deep faith.
The decision to end the tradition in Texas was made after State Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, called and wrote to the head of the state prison agency. He said that if they didn't abolish the practice, he would take the matter to the State Legislature.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Whitmire said he had been concerned about the practice for several years. Addressing it had been on his "to-do list," he said. He said he'd moved the item to the top of his list after reading about Brewer's request and what he considered a "manipulation of the system."
He said he was indignant that "a convicted capital murderer who committed one of the most hideous crimes imaginable would be allowed to order not one item, but numerous items and then not eat" and that Brewer should be "made a celebrity two hours before he was executed."
"I think the inmate ought to be fed the same meal as the general population, probably lunch," Whitmire added. After that, he said, the prison should "continue to carry out the most serious matter that the state of Texas deals with."
Anne Emanuel, a Georgia lawyer who worked as a legal analyst on the Amnesty International team that fought for Davis' exoneration, said she was moved by Davis' request to have the same meal as the other inmates. As for Whitmire's decision to end the practice in Texas, she said, "Clearly it's a small issue. I kind of think it's a diversionary issue."
The Texas death row process has been under intense scrutiny. In 2009, a Chicago Tribune investigation into the state's 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been convicted of murder for the deaths of his three young daughters by arson. The report noted that of nine fire scientists who reviewed the case against Willingham, all concluded that "the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore."
Later that year, the Texas Fire Commission was about to reexamine the evidence in the Willingham case when Gov. Rick Perry reappointed three members of the board. When board members and observers criticized the decision, Perry wrote it off as "business as usual." Despite the shake-up, the commission concluded in 2010 that the original case investigators had used "flawed science" in making their determination.
Whitmire expressed outrage at Emanuel's suggestion that he may have been trying to divert attention from what she called "the real issues surrounding the implementation of the death penalty."
"I'm not here to dicsuss or debate the death penalty," he said. "That didn't enter into my decision."
He reiterated that his goal had been to ensure that people like Brewer were not given "special treatment" and said he didn't see why someone in his position would want to distract people from criticisms of death penalty cases.
"I don't prosecute 'em, I don't rule on 'em," he said. "They are what are."