By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The Texas prison system abolished on Thursday the time-honored tradition of offering an opulent last meal to condemned inmates before their executions, saying they will get standard prison fare instead.
"Enough is enough," state Senator John Whitmire wrote in a letter on Thursday to prison officials, prompting the move. "It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege. It's a privilege which the perpetrator did not provide to their victim."
The letter was in apparent response to the dinner requested, but not eaten, by white supremacist Lawrence Brewer before he was put to death on Wednesday night for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr.
Brewer requested an elaborate meal that included a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, a meat-lover's pizza, a big bowl of okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecue, a half a loaf of bread, peanut butter fudge, a pint of ice cream and two chicken-fried steaks.
When it arrived around 4 p.m. at Brewer's cell, he declined it all, telling prison officials he wasn't hungry.
Whitmire, who chairs the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, threatened legislation if the prison system didn't put an end to the practice, which rarely results in the inmate getting exactly what is requested anyway.
But a new law won't be necessary. Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, replied that Whitmire's concerns were valid and that the practice would halt immediately.
The prisoners will be served "the same meal served to other offenders," Livingston's statement said.
Most states that have the death penalty allow last-meal requests, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Some allow the inmate to choose from a menu, others have cost restrictions or say they must be ordered locally.
REQUESTS RUN THE GAMUT
Anti-death penalty activists weren't bothered by the Texas move, saying the tradition always made the prison system look more merciful than it is.
Jim Harrington, who heads the Texas Civil Rights Project, described the grand last-meal tradition itself as shameful.
"I am totally opposed to capital punishment, but I certainly don't understand the logic of a last meal, and the way it's turned into such a show," he said.
Brian Evans of Amnesty International agreed.
"It's a minor thing compared with the fact that they are killing him," he said. "The cruelty of the whole process is much larger than whether you get to pick the last meal that you eat."
Texas executes four times more inmates than the rest of the nation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and last meals ordered by inmates have run the gamut.
James Edward Smith, who was executed in Texas in 1990, requested "a lump of dirt." Odell Barnes, executed in 2000, requested "justice, equality and world peace."
Gerald Mitchell, who was executed in 2001, requested a bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers hard candy. Jonathan Wayne Nobles, executed in 1998, ordered the Eucharist sacrament.
In Florida in 1989, Ted Bundy had steak, eggs, hash browns and coffee, according to the Last Meals Project, an online archive of famous inmates' last meals. Timothy McVeigh, executed in Indiana in 2001, ordered mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Most death row last meal requests have been routine, though they are often large. Prison officials say ribs, enchiladas and ice cream are common requests.
The prison is not required to honor an inmate's request for a last meal, but provide it -- or something close -- if the ingredients are on hand in the prison kitchens. Small requests, like the bag of Jolly Ranchers, are usually granted.
But filet mignon sometimes shows up in the cell as a hamburger patty, and lobster tails might morph into fish sticks by the time the prison sees them. Requests for alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs are routinely denied.
Instead of the lump of dirt, which Smith said he wanted to perform a "voodoo ritual," he got a small container of yogurt.
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)