Why We're Fascinated by Death Row Cuisine

Two more executions in Texas; two more final-meal menus dutifully disseminated. TIME.com's Tony Karon wonders whether the last-supper ritual makes capital punishment more digestible

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Oliver David Cruz, the slow-witted (IQ: 63) rapist-murderer executed in Texas Wednesday, chose a south-of-the-border theme for his last supper: spicy beef fajitas, beans and rice, flour tortillas, onions, tomatoes, avocados, a banana split and orange juice.

We know this because, in keeping with a morbid convention in media coverage of executions, the condemned person's final meal has already been broadcast to the world by the wire services. And soon it will find its way onto what may be the most macabre culinary site on the Web: The Texas Department of Criminal Justices Final Meal Requests page.

There we learn that Cruz's choices are somewhat humble measured against the norm. Just two weeks, ago, for example, murderer Juan Soria wanted "chicken, three pieces of fish, burgers, pizza, fruit (grapes, plums, peaches, apples, tangerines), doughnuts, walnuts, chocolate candy bar, plain potato chips, picante sauce, hot sauce, salad with ranch dressing, Coke and Sprite" before going to meet his maker. A month earlier, Jessy San Miguel, who had killed four people execution-style while robbing a Taco Bell, had asked for "Pizza (beef, bacon bits, and multiple types of cheese), 10 quesadillas (5 mozzarella cheese, 5 cheddar cheese), 5 strips of open-flame grilled beef, 5 strips of stir-fried beef, chocolate peanut butter ice cream, sweet tea, double fudge chocolate cake, broccoli and grapes" before he lay down for the last time on that Huntsville gurney.

I can't deny my own voyeuristic fascination as I scroll down through the choices of men being offered one final moment of the "freedom" to be a consumer. Their choices, as diverse, poignant and sometimes just plain wacky as they are, offer clues to their identities and character. But perhaps that fascination is simply a kind of "desert island discs" game that calls on the reader to consider his or her own menu for a final meal. But even more fascinating than the contents of the site, perhaps, is the decision by the folks down at Huntsville to post this information on the Web.

Governments are not in the habit of going out of their way to satisfy the voyeuristic impulses of a morbidly curious public. Perhaps there's simply some bureaucratic sense of duty to record the minutiae of a condemned person's last day on earth. Or perhaps our culture has evolved this ritual of the la carte last meal to sugarcoat what remains a grim act of violence by the state to redress a previous wrong. After all, in some countries, a condemned man's last meal is whatever the prison kitchen happens to be serving that day, and death is by firing squad rather than the lethal injection ritual that gives the impression of a medical procedure rather than the more visible violence of shooting a man to death.

Where some Islamic cultures have evolved detailed instruction on the taking of life and limb as punishment for various crimes, an American culture that takes its moral reference points from the Old Testament and the New is stuck with the challenge of trying, if indeed this is possible, of finding morally agreeable rituals for executing offenders. And it's not easy. The Last Meal Requests page records numerous instances of requests for a final cigarette. And these, the site notes, are denied in accordance with department policy. Could it be that the policy is designed to protect the condemned men's health? It could simply be based on the judgment that a cigarette is a pleasure that should be denied a man who has committed crimes ugly enough to warrant execution. But then why allow the same man the pleasure of choosing his last meal, as opposed to simply giving him whatever the prison kitchen was serving that day?

There's no correct answer, of course. Killing people is a morally messy business. Whether we allow a man carte blanche with junk food menus and then have a medic administer a lethal injection, or we simply serve him that day's fried chicken and then shoot him in the head, the act is, in essence, the same. The difference, in the end, may have less to do with the condemned man's perception than it does with the way his executioners — and the society that orders them to kill its capital convicts — experience his death.