A last supper on death row: Should America give murderers an extravagant final meal?

Hours before convicted murderer Jamie Mills became the latest man to be executed in America, he was granted a special last request: What would he like to eat on his final day on Earth?

The man convicted in the beating deaths of an elderly couple in told Alabama prison officials he wanted a seafood buffet of sorts, with three large shrimp, two catfish filets, three oysters, three onion rings and one stuffed crab.

Mills got that meal before he was taken to the death chamber to die by lethal injection. But the choice of a last meal is no guarantee in U.S. prisons. The age-old tradition is shrouded in controversy, ethical disagreement and even concern over how much the meal may cost taxpayers.

“Food is a focal point for all of us. It's a point of enjoyment and pleasure and comfort, and that's sort of its reputation," said Deborah Denno, law professor and founding director of the Neuroscience and Law Center at Fordham University. “It seems that we would provide this for somebody who’s going to eat for the very last time, and that makes us feel better about ourselves. At the same time, it does seem very strange.”

Of the 19 states where capital punishment is legal and practiced, a USA TODAY analysis found 12 allow special last meals – and two of those impose a price limit. Six serve only prison food, no matter what a condemned person asks for − in other words, nothing outside what is in the prison kitchen. Kansas Department of Corrections spokesperson David Thompson said the death row meal policy in that state is "under review" and noted the state has not carried out an execution since 1965.

Last month, hours before convicted murderer Brian Dorsey was executed over the objections of dozens of correctional officers and Missouri's governor, the state served him two bacon double cheeseburgers, two orders of chicken strips, two large orders of seasoned fries and a pizza with sausage, pepperoni, onion, mushrooms and extra cheese.

The infamous final meal that a condemned prisoner chooses before execution has fascinated the American public and is a source of controversy within the already controversial topic of the death penalty. Some criminal justice advocates say it serves as a final act of compassion before inflicting the most severe punishment, while others argue it is a disgrace to the people forever hurt by their crimes and to taxpayers picking up the tab.

USA TODAY spoke with government officials and experts to find out how the debate has played out in the 19 states where capital punishment is practiced.

Brian Dorsey was put to death by lethal injection in April for the 2006 murders of Sarah Bonnie, 25, and her husband Ben Bonnie, 28, in New Bloomfield, Missouri.
Brian Dorsey was put to death by lethal injection in April for the 2006 murders of Sarah Bonnie, 25, and her husband Ben Bonnie, 28, in New Bloomfield, Missouri.

Final meal shines spotlight on conflicted emotions over death penalty

How the last-meal ritual originated in the United States has not been confirmed, but some researchers trace it back to historic final feasts, from the famous Last Supper that Christians believe Jesus shared with his apostles before his crucifixion to ancient Greece, where people on death row were fed before their execution out of fear that they would return as hungry ghosts.

In the U.S., experts say the last meal represents the nation’s own ambivalence toward capital punishment, as well as a shared interest about the end of life.

“We’re human beings – we all fear death. It's something we're all going to face,” Denno said, noting most people won't know how or when. “The fact that your last meal is documented in a way that, for the great majority of us, is probably not going to be, is something of fascination.”

The special meal also is a recognition of a person’s humanity before their end, Denno said, and a means to assuage the guilt of bystanders.

Though even the most lavish final feasts ultimately amount to a pittance when compared with the overall cost of convicting and executing a death row prisoner, the idea that taxpayer dollars could be spent on their pleasure is "horrifying to even think about" for the victims, Denno said.

“There are going to be people who look at the death penalty and think that any measure beyond bread and water is too much for somebody who may have killed someone."

Death row prisoners discuss last meal before execution

In the years leading up to their final breath, prisoners on death row often discuss what they will request for their final meal, said Sarah Gerwig, a law professor at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, who as a post-conviction attorney has been visiting people in prison since 1998. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found prisoners executed in 2020 had been on death row for an average of about 19 years.

"The men and women who are in prison are longing for normalcy and their memories of a time that felt more normal when they could have a craving for food and just go get it. That becomes a luxury, and longed-for luxury," Gerwig told USA TODAY. “A lot of prisoners requested last meals that would have felt like home-cooked meals that they had in their childhood or food that was evocative for them or memorable in meaningful ways.”

Gerwig, who wrote a 2014 paper examining special last meals after Texas abolished the practice, said that prisoners know their requests will be described in news reports and that some take the opportunity to “make a final statement."

Victor Feguer ordered a single olive with the pit intact for his final meal, symbolizing peace, the Telegraph Herald reported. Tennessee death row inmate Donnie Edward Johnson declined a special meal before his execution in 2019, instead requesting that his supporters donate meals to the homeless.

‘Being able to participate in your own funeral’

A chosen last meal may be a centuries-old tradition, but it's not a federally protected right. The rules vary by state; some have banished the practice, and others have imposed restrictions after an outcry from lawmakers.

South Dakota allows condemned inmates to “request a last meal from items that are accessible to the facility food service provider,” said Department of Corrections spokesperson Michael Winder.

Charles Rhines, executed in 2019 for the murder of Donnivan Schaeffer, requested fried chicken, cantaloupe, the Norwegian flatbread lefsa, strawberry and cherry yogurt, butter, black licorice, cookies and cream ice cream, root beer and coffee with cream and sugar, Winder said.

Nevada limits inmates to the prison system’s menu, but it doesn’t have to be the meal of the day, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said.

“For your last meal, you can choose anything from that menu,” said spokesperson Teri Vance. “You can mix and match.”

Daryl Mack, the last person executed in the state, requested a fish sandwich, fries and lemon-lime soft drink for his final meal in 2006, according to the Reno Gazette Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.

In Wyoming, “at the discretion of the Warden, the condemned inmate may be permitted a last meal of the inmate’s choosing,” said Department of Corrections spokesperson Stephanie Kiger. But they have to choose from “food items available to the general population through the correctional facility’s food service department, although adherence to the scheduled menu and/or recommended portion sizes will not be required."

The moment of a last meal has symbolic significance for some.

Carey Dean Moore, the last person executed in Nebraska, ordered Pizza Hut, cheesecake and soda − a request he originally made in jest, said the Rev. Robert Bryan, who shared Moore's final meal in 2018 after coming to know him as his spiritual adviser.

Moore got the pizza and cheesecake and shared the meal with about eight friends and family in an infirmary room at the state penitentiary in Lincoln the night before the execution, said the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastor.

“It was a sacred moment, but not a sappy teary-eyed thing,” Bryan said, recalling how Moore asked one person to stop crying.

“It was not that kind of meal for him,” the former prison minister said. “It was, 'Hey, I’m having a meal with my friends.’ Sort of like being able to participate in your own funeral meal.”

Notorious killer's extravagant meal in Texas leads to abolishment

Texas, which has performed more than one-third of all executions in the U.S. since 1976, famously outlawed special last meals after then-state Sen. John Whitmire expressed outrage over a 2011 death row prisoner's request.

Kristin Houle Cuellar, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Whitmire was reacting to what was “perceived as a very extravagant meal” requested by Lawrence Brewer, who along with two co-defendants were convicted of torturing and killing a 49-year old disabled Black man in Jasper County in 1998.

Brewer requested for his last meal:

  • Two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions

  • A triple-patty bacon cheeseburger

  • A cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños

  • A bowl of fried okra with ketchup

  • One pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread

  • Three fajitas

  • A meat lover’s pizza

  • One pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream

  • A slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts

  • Three root beers

Not long after his execution, amid growing outcry, Texas abolished last meal requests in 2011.

Whitmire, now the mayor of Houston, did not return USA TODAY's requests for comment.

Fixed price menus

Florida limits prisoners to $40 for a last meal and the food must be purchased locally. Oklahoma has a $25 limit.

Gilbert Postelle, executed in 2022 for shooting four people to death, had a McDonald's-style meal, said Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesperson Kay Thompson. The meal was 20 chicken nuggets with Ranch, BBQ, and honey mustard dipping sauces, two large orders of fries with ketchup, two chicken sandwiches, a caramel frappé and a large cola.

The total for the same meal at an Oklahoma McDonalds in 2024 was about $27.

The Arizona Department of Corrections has published a list of last meal requests of the 40 prisoners it has executed since 1992.

Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013. But condemned prisoners before then were given regular prison kitchen meals, the state's former prison spokesman told USA TODAY.

“The sense was – considering these individuals had all been convicted of heinous murders, in many cases multiple homicides – the state was not going to go out of its way to provide special meals,” said Leonard Sipes, who now runs a website on law enforcement issues.

The former director of public information for the state’s Public Safety department recalled John Thanos saying he enjoyed killing. At one point leading up to his 1994 execution for a murder spree, Sipes said Thanos told him, "Hell, I’d kill you, if I had the opportunity.”

Loved ones of his victims also preferred he get no fancy meal, Sipes said. He recalled being asked, “You're not giving him anything special for dinner, are you?”

Feasting on 'The Lord of the Rings'?

Some states have given condemned prisoners broad leeway − not just for food but other unusual requests.

Utah granted Ronnie Lee Gardner, in 2010, the last person the state executed, a smorgasbord of food and other requests, according to the Department of Corrections.

But he had the meal two days before the execution to “spend his final 48 hours fasting, aside from an occasional soda,” the document said. Agency spokesperson Karen Tapahe said moving the meal forward to allow for fasting probably was a religious accommodation.

Gardner also spent the last day watching the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

“In those final hours, it’s not uncommon for them to watch certain shows, something to bring them some sense of calm,” said Tapahe, with a nod to prison staff. “They’re pretty accommodating."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Should America give murderers a special last meal?