Last Meal, Last Chance: Convicted Killer Chooses Christ

Lethal Injection Room – San Quentin

On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis died in Georgia.

Davis, you may know, was convicted of murdering a police officer.  But in the twenty years since the crime, seven of the nine key witnesses have recanted their testimony. The lack of clarity regarding the case sparked anti-death penalty backlash.  Groups including Amnesty International and the NAACP petitioned the courts to grant Davis a new trial or evidentiary hearing.  World leaders including Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Renate Wohlwend of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, and former President Jimmy Carter called for a review of the case.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court refused to consider a last-minute appeal;  Davis, denied the opportunity to take a lie detector test, was executed on September 21, 2011, at 11:08 p.m.

But Davis was not the only man to be executed on that date in the United States. Lawrence Russell Brewer died as well, although his conviction was not controversial:  Brewer had been found guilty of a hate crime in Jasper, Texas, for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

Following these two prominent executions, many are talking about capital punishment, about whether it’s moral to take a life even when there is no ambiguity regarding the person’s guilt.  The Catholic Church opposes the use of the death penalty in almost every case, and Pope John Paul II spoke about it frequently.

But it’s not my purpose today to talk about the death penalty.  My purpose today is to talk about food—specifically, about the convict’s last meal.

The Last Meal Project

CBS’ “48 Hours” offered an unusual slide presentation, showing part of The Last Meals Project, photographer Jonathon Kambouris’ pictorial review of criminals’ dying requests.  In The Last Meals Project, Kambouris intersperses photos of the infamous killers and their last meals with statistics regarding the incidence of executions in the United States.

Lawrence Russell Brewer, convicted more than a decade ago for the “dragging death” murder, used his final meal to give the finger one last time to the criminal justice system and the taxpayers of Texas. Brewer asked for a large and very expensive dinner:  two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover’s pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.  Then, according to prison officials, Brewer didn’t eat any of it.

The story prompted Senator John Whitmire, chairman of Texas’ Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to call for an end to the longstanding tradition of permitting convicts to choose their final meal.  Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, agreed; and within hours, the practice was ended.  In the future, criminals on death row will have to settle for the same prison food that the others receive.

The Last Meals Project showcases some other prominent killers and the meals they chose:

  • Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing, asked for two quarts of mint chocolate chip ice cream before his execution in Indiana in 2001.
  • Mass murderer Ted Bundy asked for steak, eggs, hash browns and coffee before heading off to the electric chair in 1989.
  • Karla Faye Tucker requested a garden salad with ranch dressing, a peach and a banana.
  • Prostitute Aileen Carol Wuorlos was executed in 2002 for killing seven men in Florida.  She didn’t want a meal before she died—but she did ask for and receive one cup of coffee.
  • The founder of the Crips, a Los Angeles street gang, Stanley “Tookie” Williams was convicted of killing four persons in California.  Williams declared his innocence until the end.  Perhaps as a sign of his pacifist streak, he asked for a last meal of oatmeal and milk.
  • Victor Feguer was hanged in Iowa in 1963, but not before eating his last meal of a single, unpitted olive.  When Feguer was buried, the pit from the olive was still in his suit pocket.
  • And here’s the guy who most caught my attentionJonathan Wayne Nobles, on death row for the stabbing deaths of two young women, was an ex-con with a history of drug abuse and mental illness.  His request:  All he wanted, before his death by lethal injection, was to receive the Holy Eucharist.

Nobles’ heart was apparently turned toward repentance just three weeks before his execution when he met with Paula Kurland, the mother of one of his victims.  Nobles had first refused to meet with her; but Kurland hoped that a face-to-face meeting with her daughter Mitzi’s killer would help her to put the past behind her.

With the help of a state program called the Victim/Offender Mediation Dialogue, the meeting was arranged.  Murderer Jonathon Nobles and grieving mother Paula Kurland talked, first uncomfortably, about that day, about Paula’s grief, about Jonathon’s regret.  Apologies were offered and accepted.  They talked for five hours.  In the end, Paula Kurland reported feeling more at peace than she had been in the previous twelve years.  And Jonathon, forgiven by his victim’s mother, was ready to accept the forgiveness of God.

He died as we all might hope to die—having just received the Body and Blood of Christ.

  • Maggie Goff

    Thank you for this, Kathy, on this the Feast of Saint Augustine.
    I cried tears of gratitude all through the Office of Readings today. I came back to the Church in July of 2008 after decades away. I pray every single day for all those who are away, including my four siblings.

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  • Patty

    Thank you for this insightful and thought provoking article. We get up in the morning, grab something to eat and go on with our day, never thinking about the people who don’t have this luxury. I pray that as I approach each day I will remember those who can’t do this, offering up my day for all of them, and saying an extra prayer for the abolishment of capital punishment.

    • Patty

      P.S. I forgot to say “Welcome back, Maggie! We missed you.”

  • bill bannon

    I disagree that getting one Pope’s odd take on the death penalty into the catechism means that: “The Catholic Church opposes the use of the death penalty in almost every case, and Pope John Paul II spoke about it frequently”. Is every change by one or even three Popes in a generation ” The Catholic Church”. If so, then burning heretics begun in 1253 AD by Pope Innocent IV and his successors was also ” The Catholic Church”.
    It was not. It was a regression which Popes can also cause. John Paul II did on the death penalty what he also did on wifely obedience: he used the exemption from death of Cain by God passage… to drown out Gen.9:6 where the same God gives a death penalty for murder at the inception of kingdoms…shortly after Cain’s exemption. On wifely obedience, he used Ephesians “be subject to one another” to drown out 5 other NT passages that expressed or implied wifely obedience.
    John Paul actually called the death penalty “cruel” in 1999 in St. Louis. Avery Dulles noted years ago in
    First Things that God gave the death penalty ( that cruel thing) in the first Person imperative to mankind 36
    times…mostly to the Jews but once also to the Gentiles in Genesis 9:6 for murder only. So we had the leader of 1 billion Catholics calling “cruel” something God repeatedly mandated. And that’s not odd?

  • Tom Cahillane

    Kathy you have outdone yourself with this article! This is my favorite of all your blog posts and I love your well written charm and wit in regards to all your posts!

    • heavenly1

      Thanks, Tom! And I love your humor!

  • Sarx Discuss

    Not at all. We’re not a Bible-only Church. The Magisterium, and all of us, continues to discern God’s will. In this case, as the Catechism makes clear, the death penalty can rarely be defended because criminal justice systems have become better at preventing violence than they were in Biblical times.

    Here it is:

    2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

    • bill bannon

      We do however have to obey scripture rather than skip it or find casuistry to circumvent it. Cardinal Newman said abrupt developments are not real developments. Going from the papacy executing 500 criminals in the first half of the 19th century ( google ” papal executioner wiki” ) to a Pope calling the death penalty “cruel” in St. Louis, 1999 is abrupt in the long run of things…we executed from 1253 AD till 1850 while having locked cells capable of life sentences which are as old as Rome and were sentences within the Inquisition.
      The two largest Catholic populations on earth are Brazil and Mexico. Both have no death penalty, high murder rates (over 20 per 100,000 each…Japan is .4 per 100,000 with a death penalty).
      The head of the Sinaloa cartel, Chapo Guzman, escaped from maximum security prison in Mexico and in Brazil, last December 2012, 2400 prisoners on Chrimas furlough did not return to prison.
      Ergo ccc 2267 never checked Catholic reality in the concrete outside of Europe. The two worst murder rates on earth by UN figures are heavily Catholic El Salvador and Honduras. The
      catechism writer probably checked Malta, Luxembourg, Andorra and several other countries within Europe. He never checked the two most populous Catholic countries…Brazil and Mexico which are c.50 times less safe than Shinto Japan as to murder. Your family is fifty times safer from murder touring Japan than touring the two largest Catholic population centers.

      • Sarx Discuss

        The catechism permits your conclusion “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

        • bill bannon

          Unforetunately, Rome and Bishops encourage abolishment of the death penalty in the real political world… which actions by them contradict the catechism passage itself.

          • Sarx Discuss

            No. The Catechism doesn’t require what it barely permits.

          • bill bannon

            The catechism permits what the magisterium shuts down in real life and that is a contradiction unless you sell used cars.

          • Guest

            So the Church is required to favor the death penalty?

          • bill bannon

            At least in Mexico and Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela… if She the Church wants to protect lives rather than reimage for the Nobel jury due to the Inquisition which was wrong…because prison per se only protects you from the “caught” murderers which in the US is 62% of them but in Mexico etc. is probably closer to 20% ( Guatemala 5%). Hence one needs detterence which 2267 never addresses. Hence the immense hole in ccc 2267 as to logic. The death penalty is a detterent though only if one does it enough according to economists using regression analysis:

  • poetcomic1

    A brutal and sociopathic murderer with a life sentence in a state that has no death penalty can terrorize other prisoners – they know he has nothing to lose and he can extort sexual favors, gifts, whatever he wants. What an unspeakable hell to live with such a monster who can kill with impunity. Hundreds of other men are terrorized by him over years, even decades. .And that isn’t even considering the guards who can be killed at any moment by such a man.