Can a prisoner request anything for his last meal?

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Nov. 10 2009 6:04 PM

I'll Have 24 Tacos and the Filet Mignon

Can a prisoner request anything for his last meal?

Last meal. Click image to expand.
What are the rules for a Death Row last meal?

John Allen Muhammad, the "Beltway sniper" who went on a two-week shooting spree in the Washington, D.C., area in 2002 *, was scheduled for execution in Greensville, Va., Tuesday night. (Update: Virginia executed Muhammad at 9:06 p.m. Tuesday.) In death row tradition, Muhammad requested a special last meal, but he asked the Virginia Department of Corrections not to announce the menu. Can a death row inmate request anything he wants for his final meal?

Sure, but he might not get it. Final meals are generally limited to food that can be prepared on-site. Virginia prisons have a 28-day rotating menu—for example, hot dogs on the first day of the cycle, chili on the second day, etc.—and prisoners facing imminent execution are limited to one of the 28. Other states are more flexible. In Texas, the chef at the Huntsville unit where executions take place tries to accommodate any order. But sometimes that means cooking a close approximate. When an inmate requests filet mignon—which happens a lot—the chef will instead cook up a steak hamburger, since that's what they already have in the kitchen. When a Texas inmate requested 24 tacos, the chef made four. In Florida, last meals must be purchased locally and can't cost more than $40. Alcohol is almost never allowed, since the prisons don't want rowdy inmates on their hands.

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Prisoners usually submit their final meal request a couple of days before their execution date. The request is passed along to the prison's chef—often a prisoner himself—who then prepares the meal. When the food is ready, it's covered and brought to the prisoner's cell a few hours before the execution. (In Virginia, the food has to be served at least four hours beforehand.)

The most popular request is a cheeseburger and fries. Steak, fried chicken, and ice cream are also common. A communications representative often announces the menu to reporters, but a prisoner can request that his choice remain secret. Until 2004, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice posted the last meals of executed prisoners on its Web site but removed the list after receiving complaints that it was offensive. The last request listed is from double homicide convict Larry Hayes, who asked for "Two bacon double cheeseburgers, French fries, onion rings, ketchup, cole slaw, two diet Cokes, one quart of milk, one pint of rocky road ice cream, one pint of fried okra, salad dressing, tomato, and onion." (Texas still posts the names and crimes of its executed offenders, as well as their last statements.) According to the TDCJ, a prisoner set to be executed Tuesday, Yosvanis Valle, asked for four hamburgers, Mexican rice, tomato, jalapeños, cheese, onions, and salad dressing. His request was granted.

The last meals of death row inmates are often quite memorable. Karla Faye Tucker requested a fruit plate but didn't eat it. John Wayne Gacy asked for shrimp, fried chicken, French fries, and a pound of strawberries. Timothy McVeigh ate two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Instead of a last meal, Tennessee convict Philip Workman requested that pizza be distributed to the homeless in Nashville. (Prison officials denied his request, but local groups passed out pizza in his honor.) Before his execution in 2000, convicted rapist and murderer Odell Barnes requested a last meal of "Justice, Equality, World Peace." In 1992, Arkansas convict Ricky Ray Rector, who had brain damage from shooting himself in the head after killing a police officer, ate a final meal of steak, fried chicken, and cherry Kool-Aid, but famously said he wanted to save his pecan pie for later.

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Explainer thanks Jason Clark of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center; Brian Price, author of Meals To Die For; and Larry Traylor of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

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Correction, Nov. 11, 2009: This article originally gave the wrong year for the sniper attacks. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.