#24) The Last Meals Project

Recently I came across the Last Meals Project, an online gallery by Jonathon Kambouris consisting of photos of death row inmates with their last meals super-imposed.  There’s a certain starkness to the work, and it’s hard not to look at these pictures and feel a sense of loss, for the lives the condemned took, and in some cases perhaps for the prisoner themselves.   In all probability, few tears will be shed over the loss of high-profile offenders such as Timothy McVeigh (mint ice cream) and Ted Bundy (steak, eggs and hash browns), but some of the lesser-known convicts undoubtedly had troubled lives.  Of course, had the victims of James Autry (burger, fries and Dr. Pepper) or Reginald Reeves (fried chicken and Coke) or any of the other killers shown here been my loved ones, I would have been happy to give the accused a knuckle sandwich as their last meal.  Nevertheless, the subjects of Kambouris’s project were human beings, regardless of what their crimes may have been.

The public knowledge of what a condemned killer ate for their last meal begs questions.  It’s natural to have at least some curiosity about why they may have picked what they did.   Sweets seem to be an obvious choice: besides McVeigh’s ice cream, other dessert items displayed here include an ice cream sandwich, Jolly Ranchers and chocolate chip cookies.  Comfort foods were also popular, such as Reeves’s chicken, and the oatmeal picked by Stanley “Tookie” Williams, executed in 2005 at San Quentin amid much public controversy.   There’s also a bleak minimalism to some of the food selections.  Aileen Wournous, portrayed by Charlize Theron in the film “Monster”, went out with a cup of coffee.  One prisoner had only a tortilla and water; another a single olive; another declined altogether.  (Since this blog was originally published, Troy Davis, convicted for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer, was executed in Georgia, and he also declined a last meal.)

There are some rather unusual items too.  One killer decided to have a jar of dill pickles for his last meal.  Another requested the Eucharist sacrament, and one asked for “justice, equality and world peace.”

Kambouris avoids explicitly commenting on the death penalty, acknowledging that pro or con arguments are “emotionally loaded”, although it’s not hard to detect a liberal slant in the information he presents.  If Kambouris’s goal was to give viewers pause and cause them to reflect upon the death penalty, regardless of any political affiliation, in my case, he certainly succeeded.

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