What, if anything, does the choice in last meal say about the guilt of a prisoner condemned to death? Recent research seems to show that condemned prisoners who claim innocence are more apt to forego their last meal before execution.
Phillip Workman was on death row in Tennessee for killing a policeman. When guards went to take his order for his last meal, Workman refused. Instead, he asked that a homeless person be found and a pizza be delivered.
Can inmates’ taking or refusing a final meal reveal their guilt or innocence? Kevin M. Kniffin, a researcher at Cornell University’s Lab for Decision Research, thinks there may be a correlation. Kniffin has published a study in Law where he discusses his findings.
Kniffin’s research reviewed 247 cases of people condemned to die in the America. He included the years between 2002 and 2006 in his study of condemned inmates’ taking or refusing of a final meal, the calories consumed and the condemned’s statement of culpability. Kniffin’s research showed that people denying their guilt were three times as prone to turn down a final meal as were those who confessed their guilt. Among all the condemned, those who claimed to be guilty consumed meals containing, on average, a 34 percent greater caloric intake.
Kniffin’s research shows that eating or refusing a final meal, as well as the amount asked for, may offer a view into their liability — or at least what they think is their culpability.
According to Kniffin, accepting the traditional final meal may imply consent, to be executed, at some level. It follows, then, that people who “….deny guilt will tend to deny…” the only remaining meal. A person facing execution for a crime in which they maintain innocence, generally doesn’t have an appetite when viewed in the context of the remainder of the study group.
Kniffin is cautious to not form any firm decisions about the correlation between last meals and guilt. Claiming innocence is very different from being innocent. Kniffin writes that of the more than 1,500 death row inmates executed in America since 1976, fifteen have been named by the Death Penalty Information Center as “executed but possibly innocent.
Kniffin sees the research as being a tool for understanding the possible innocence of people who have been executed in the past. He also sees it as a step towards understanding the social implications of last meals which has long been thought taboo.
The condemned’s last meal is part of his or her final day before execution. In the United States, the condemned cannot ask for an alcoholic drink, while other counties have different traditions. In France, the “little glass of rum” is granted to the condemned in the moments before execution. No last meal is offered in France as the condemned is only told of the impending execution minutes before the actual event.
In most countries that still have capital punishment, the prisoner may select the final meal and the prison officials often do their best to satisfy the request.
Here’s what two infamous murderers in America had as their last meals.
Convicted on June 2, 1997 of 8 counts of first-degree murder and the use of a weapon of mass destruction, McVeigh was executed June 11, 2001 in Terre Haute, Indiana.
A Gulf War veteran, McVeigh was responsible for the deaths of 168 men, women and children in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. McVeigh, unapologetic for his actions, requested that his execution be televised. The request was denied. Rumors circulated that PETA had contacted McVeigh and encouraged him to select a meatless final meal. McVeigh chose 2 pints of Ben and Jerry’s mint chocolate ice cream.
Wuornos was convicted January 27, 1992 for murdering Richard Mallory. Sentenced to death for his killing, Wuornos went on to be convicted of 5 additional murders and received 5 more death sentences. Wuornos was executed October 9, 2002 at the Florida State Prison.
Wuornos refused a last meal as she believed the prison guards had been contaminating her food. While Wuornos did decline the offer of a final meal, she did request a cup of coffee — black, no sugar.
Additional research is planned to see if a last meal can shed additional light on the guilt or innocence of the condemned. For now, it appears to be an interesting theory that is just being studied.
By Jerry Nelson