Death on the Menu

Texas may have streamlined its death-penalty appeals process down to almost nothing. But even as court-appointed appeals lawyers miss filing deadlines, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles reviews life-and-death matters over the fax machine (actual meetings are too much trouble), one part of the process gets careful attention: condemned prisoners’ last meals.

As if the subject were restaurant row instead of death row, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Web site spells out in macabre detail what inmates ask for — and what they actually get — just before taking their lethal injections.

“Three fried chicken breasts, three jalapeño peppers, five rolls and one soda,” reads the entry for Willis Barnes, executed in September 1998 for a strangling death. “Shrimp and salad” were the unorthodox choices of Pedro Muniz, put to death in May 1998 for the rape and slaying of a college student. “Shrimp not available,” the Web site notes. “Served cheeseburger, French fries and cola.” Pretty close.

“It boils down to what we have available in the kitchen,” explains Public Information Officer Larry Fitzgerald, adding that prison cooks try to fill the inmates’ requests. But “if they order a T-bone steak . . . well, we don’t serve a T-bone steak in the prison system. I don’t think the taxpayers of Texas would sit still for feeding steak to inmates.”

Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights agrees there’s no way Texas taxpayers would pop for an inmate’s final T-bone. But in the case of murder-for-hire killer Andrew Cantu (baby-back pork ribs, hard-shell tacos, corn tortillas, French fries, salad with ranch dressing, red and green chile sauce, jalapeños and tomatoes boiled with garlic and cumin, root beer and chocolate ice cream), Bright also notes a chilling irony: “They may have fed him” — and how! — “but they didn’t give him a legal review.” Cantu was executed in February 1999, after his court-appointed lawyer missed two deadlines to file a writ that might have forestalled his fate.

Illinois just suspended executions after several inmates scheduled to die recently had their convictions overturned; some were cleared of involvement in the crimes for which they nearly died. “And Illinois,” Bright adds, “is a model state compared to Texas.”

Now, the express line on Texas’ death row opened long before Governor George W. Bush earned the distinction of having signed more death warrants than any living elected official in the United States. (Betty Lou Beets, a great-grandmother with a history of being beaten and sexually abused, was scheduled to die Thursday for the killing of her husband.) But the GOP presidential candidate “is not paying attention to anything,” Bright says. “He’s not taking time out from his campaign to review any cases . . . at the clip they’re going, it would be a full-time job.”

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald, the spokesman for the Texas prison system, is proud of the year-old Web site: “We were getting so many calls from reporters asking literally the same questions over and over and over — last meals? who’s scheduled for execution? — by putting it on the Web site, it quite honestly saved us a lot of time.”

—Bobbi Murray


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