Last September, at the final stop of his stay on Texas’s death row, convicted murderer Lawrence Brewer ordered an outlandish amount of food for his last meal.
Cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeñoes
Two Chicken-fried steaks with gravy and onions
Bacon cheeseburger with three patties
Bowl of fried okra with ketchup
Pound of barbecued meat
Half a loaf of white bread
Pint of ice cream
Peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts
Thee root beers to wash it all down
Then he chose not to eat it.
Outraged State Senator John Whitmire in turn began to pressure state prison officials. Thus, Mr. Brewer became responsible for Texas ending its tradition of one final act of compassion toward an individual before injecting a fatal concoction of drugs into their blood stream. Since then Texas has executed two more death row inmates who were not able to request a last meal of their choosing. What’s new, right? This is Texas after all. The Capital Punishment Capitol of the Universe.
The Austin-American Statesman reports that attitudes toward the death penalty may be shifting in Texas. With the adoption of life without parole as a sentencing option and other factors, they note that there has been a precipitous drop in new death row inmates.
“Life without parole, which Texas adopted in 2005, is one reason for the reduced number of death sentences, but new death sentences began falling before Texas passed LWOP into law,” said John Niland, attorney and founder of TDS’ Capital Trial Project that provides consulting and training for attorneys. “Texas jurors are learning that the law presumes a life sentence and that the law does not require them to vote for the death penalty.”
Greg Wiercioch, who directs the service’s post-conviction unit, said the drop in executions “shows that the United States Supreme Court and the Texas courts are concerned about the quality of representation that death row inmates receive and the reliability of the verdicts rendered.”
The Supreme Court granted five stays of execution in Texas cases this year, most notably to consider whether inmates have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in challenging their conviction or sentence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted stays of execution to two inmates who have raised compelling claims of innocence, according to the Texas Defender Service.
To illustrate how far Texas attitudes have come let’s revisit the barbaric crimes of Lawrence Brewer as this is a man who has a greater distinction than being the person who ended the practice in Texas of last meals.
Lawrence Brewer was a self-described, white supremacist who was convicted of the notorious 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. The penalty of execution by lethal injection was levied upon Brewer, but death was not enough. We needed new legislation. Ultimately this resulted in Governor Rick Perry signing the Robert Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law on May 12, 2001.
With new sentencing options made available, Texans may be soul-searching the perceived overuse of the death penalty. But it only takes a single act so offensive to the sensibilities of the courts and community for Texans to fall back on their “tough-on-crime” instincts.
Like ordering too much food for your last meal and not eating it.