What Death Row Inmates' Last Meals Say About Guilt or Innocence

PHOTO: Gary Gilmore, wearing prison maximum security white uniform, faces barrage of newsmen and law enforcement officers on way to 4th District Court for new execution date in Provo, Utah, Dec. 3, 1976.

More than any of the bizarre traditions in American history, the "special meal" served to a convicted felon just prior to execution has captured the imagination and curiosity of just about everyone from movie moguls to legal scholars to scientists.

There is a historical suggestion that the meal serves as a means of reconciliation between the murderer and the society that has extracted final revenge, perhaps even making the executioner feel more comfortable in his solitary role.

But a new study offers evidence that the last meal provides a last chance for a person who feels he or she has been unjustly condemned to show innocence.

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Researchers Kevin M. Kniffin and Brian Wansink of Cornell University have looked at the last meals requested -- or rejected -- by 247 persons who were executed in the United States between 2002 and 2006 and found that those who maintained their innocence to the very end were far more likely to reject the meal than prisoners who had accepted their guilt.

"Those who denied guilt were 2.7 times as likely to decline a last meal than people who admitted guilt (29 percent versus 8 percent,)" they conclude in their study, published in the journal Laws.

Prisoners who were "at peace" with their sentence, as the researchers put it, asked for 34 percent more calories than those who insisted they were innocent, and the "innocents" asked for "significantly fewer brand-name food items."

The researchers see the declination of a last meal as an opportunity for a prisoner who thinks the conviction was wrong to tell the executioner to, well, shove it.

"Last meal requests offer windows into self-perceived or self-proclaimed innocence," the researchers claim, and thus could provide a sort of court-of-last-resort verdict because if innocent people won't eat, and guilty people will, perhaps the system ought to pay more attention to the final menu.

They concede in their own study, however, that there are "several limitations to generalizing from our analysis," since claims of innocence might not be altogether honest reflections of the prisoner's real opinion, and there is little continuity in how the records are kept from one prison to another, and most (71 percent) of the prisoners who claimed to be innocent still wanted that last meal.

Still, the results are intriguing and offer an additional reason for continued analysis of death row's "special meals." Why they are offered, what they mean, and why this started in the first place remains ambiguous.

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It is generally thought that the tradition started centuries ago in Europe, when the last meal was seen as a way to deny vengeance on the part of society -- so the meal must have been pretty good -- and to allow the condemned a bit of peace before the blade dropped. It was also supposed to prevent his ghost from returning.

However, the law of the land in England, at least, as of the 18th century, was solitary confinement, on bread and water, until the end. So go figure. More recently, in the United States at least, the ritual has taken on a broader use, especially in highly publicized cases.

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