Tuesday, December 02, 2003


December 1, 2003

Prisoners' last meals satisfy appetite for curious facts

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Minutes before his 1995 execution in Oklahoma, convicted murderer Thomas Grasso had an important message to convey.

"I did not get my SpaghettiOs. I got spaghetti," Grasso wrote to reporters in his final statement. "I want the press to know this."

Actually, Grasso got canned spaghetti and meatballs. But that's not what he had requested as his final meal.

Grasso's story is a favorite among those who track the last meals of death row inmates. Public fascination with the custom of granting the condemned a last meal has increased so much that three of the 38 states with capital punishment -- Arizona, California and Texas -- feature prisoners' final meal menus on their Web sites.

The interest in last meals ranges from dark humor to sociological study. Mike Randleman, a California actor who operates a Web site named deadmaneating.com, said he has been accused of exploiting "a sick spectacle." But he shared an e-mail from one of his site's visitors that he thinks helps explain the macabre interest in last meals.

"I believe a man's last meal speaks volumes: Personal history, level of education, cultural and geographic background, economic history -- the list goes on and on. These 'last meal requests' serve as a valuable social document and I am glad you're archiving them. I think your site also manages to humanize the most hated segment of our society. A difficult if not impossible task."

Georgia has few written guidelines for the last meals it serves at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, home of death row. Generally, the food has to be prepared in the prison kitchen or be obtained elsewhere in Jackson, whether at a grocery, fast-food establishment or restaurant.

"It has to be something within reason," said Fred Head, who was warden at the Jackson prison from 1999 until October. "We certainly do want to honor the inmate request, since it's his last meal."

The state does not have a cap on how much it will spend on a last meal, but price usually isn't an issue. Many death row inmates just want fast food or cheap comfort food, such as fried chicken, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

James Willie Brown, executed this month for a 1975 rape and murder in Gwinnett County, ate a footlong chili dog, french fries and a 7 UP from the local Dairy Queen. Cost: $5.

Seafood and ice cream -- two items that are not served in the prison cafeteria -- also are popular fare, Head said.

Of the 10 executions Head supervised, he said, seven of the inmates seemed to enjoy their meals -- usually served at 4 p.m. and eaten in the presence of a prison chaplain and two guards. The others appeared too nervous to eat.

Texas prison officials got so many post-execution telephone calls asking for the contents of the condemned's last meal that they created a Web page dedicated to it.

"We're not trying to entertain anyone by putting this information out," said Michelle Lyons of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "We're putting it out because it's what the public wants to know."

Ty Treadwell of Roswell and Michelle Vernon of Kennesaw wrote a book on the subject, "Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals From Death Row," in 2001. Vernon, a true-crime buff, and Treadwell, a writer, met while working in a local bookstore. The book highlights some colorful last meals, with equally colorful remarks by the authors.

"I honestly think everybody loves food, and it gives people a way to connect with this segment of the population they normally have nothing in common with," Treadwell said. "They can say, 'Hey, I've never killed anybody with a hammer, but I love fried chicken.' "

Brian Price, a former prison inmate and cook in Texas, is planning to release a book in December about his experience preparing almost 200 last meals. Price, who is on parole after serving 14 years for kidnapping and sexual assault, said he took pride in preparing the meals. He remembers fixing butter beans for a condemned man.

"That was something his mom used to cook when he was a kid," Price said. "It takes them back to a time of good memories. The smells and the tastes take you back to a calm, peaceful time in their life that they want to reflect on."

Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said he thinks interest in last meals makes a sad statement about a grave matter. Bright said one of his first clients, a South Carolina man, asked for a pizza as his last meal. Afterward, the pizza company ran ads boasting that its product was so good it was worth a person's last meal.

"So often, these cases have very compelling issues -- questions of justice, questions of mental capabilities, questions of age and maturity at the time of the crime -- and here we are, dealing with the most awesome and enormous kind of thing that human beings can do, which is to take a human life, and we're focused on the trivial," Bright said.