An editorial in the San Antonio Express-News, “Justice is the Real Death Row Issue,” (September 28, 2011), addresses a recent decision by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to no longer provide “last meals” to those facing imminent execution. The change came at the request of Texas State Senator John Whitmire, the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, who was outraged by the extensive meal requested by Lawrence Brewer before his execution last week. According to reports, Brewer didn’t eat any of the food.
Here are excerpts from the editorial:
A former warden of the Walls Unit, where the death chamber is housed, described the practice of granting a special meal to condemned prisoners as a small sign of mercy. But Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said it was a privilege to which murderers are not entitled. ….
Whitmire stands accused of political grandstanding and lacking compassion. But his detractors would do better to direct their criticism at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which failed to put reasonable limits on the last meal tradition. Death row banquets such as the one served to Brewer represent affronts to victims, their families and taxpayers.
The much bigger issue on Texas’ death row has to do with justice, not food. Last year, Anthony Graves became the 12th death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973. Five of those exonerations have come within the last eight years, largely owing to advances in forensic science, especially DNA testing.
The editorial concludes with this admonition to elected officials: “Whitmire and other lawmakers have every right to be outraged about the abuse of the final meal privilege. They should be more outraged that innocent people keep ending up on death row.”
This same sentiment was echoed last week by Richard Dieter in a story by the New York Times (“Texas Death Row Kitchen Cooks Its ‘Last Meal'”, September 23, 2011):
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group based in Washington, said the decision to do away with last meals seemed petty. “If the last meal process has been abused, then maybe it warrants changing, but there are a lot more serious abuses that have gone on in terms of lack of due process in Texas,” Mr. Dieter said. “Inmates would much prefer a last lawyer to a last meal.”