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History of the Death Penalty, Executions, and Last Meals
History of the Death Penalty
The earliest record of a death penalty comes from King Hammaurabi of Babylon in the 18th century BC. The Romans, not to be outdone (the Romans were never to be outdone) implemented the death penalty as punishment “for all crimes.” According to deathpenaltyinfo.com, among the methods employed were “crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement. “
In Britain during the Tenth Century A.D., the death penalty was alive and well with hanging the usual method, but in the Eleventh Century William the Conqueror abolished this form of punishment except in times of war. Such largess would not last however, as Henry the VIII took rule in the Sixteenth Century. You know King Hank. He's the one who had his wives beheaded if they failed to give him a son, and they were queens. You can imagine what punishments a normal citizen faced, 72,000 of them. Methods of execution included “boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering.” Some offenses targeted were not only the usual treason, but refusing to confess to a crime and marrying a Jew. (Hey, some of my best friends are Jews.) Over the next two centuries, crime increased and the crimes of stealing, cutting down a tree and stealing a rabbit from a warren were added to the list of crimes punishable by death.
In America, the first record of the death penalty is recorded as taking place in Jamestown in 1608, and the first execution was that of Captain George Kendall for treason. In 1612, Sir Thomas Dale, governor of Virgina added stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians. It got worse. In 1865, the New York Colony added the crimes of striking one's mother or father or denying the 'true God,' a practice many religious zealots would like to employ today.
Objections to the death penalty, either in toto or in scope, date back to the founding fathers when Thomas Jefferson tried to revise Virginia''s use of it. The bill was defeated by one vote. In 1794, Pennsylvania repealed the death penalty for all offenses except first degree murder. (Bohm, 1999; Randa, 1997; and Schabas, 1997).
Executions were a public spectacle, and in 1834 Pennsylvania was the first state to remove them from the public eye. Shortly thereafter, in 1836, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Later, the death penalty was abolished completely by Wisconsin and Rhode Island. By the end of the century, the world would see the countries of Venezuela, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador follow suit. (Bohm, 1999 and Schabas, 1997).
In the 1900s to the present, issues related to legal executions has ebbed and flowed, and laws have been rewritten and changed and changed back again.
The Death Penalty Worldwide
The Resolution Supporting Worldwide Moratorium on Executions was passed by the United Nations in 1999. This calls on countries which have not abolished the death penalty to at least restrict its use. Ten countries, including the United States, China, Pakistan, Rwanda and Sudan voted against the resolution, (New York Times). Hmmm. The United States is keeping some interesting company.
In Japan, "Capital punishment has been unofficially scrapped...with the appointment of a left-wing justice minister who is an outspoken opponent of the country’s controversial system of secret executions." (The Times - United Kingdom, Sept 19, 2009) Previously, prisoners were given only a few hours warning of execution by hanging. Family members were informed after the fact. Amnesty international called Japan's policy "utterly cruel." It is not official.
"Japan is the only industrialized democracy, apart from the United States, to maintain capital punishment."
While the death penalty is alive and well in the U.S., the numbers have diminished with 300 in 1998 to 143 in 2003. More than half the international communities have abolished it either completely or defacto. However, over 78 countries retain the death penalty. (Amnesty International, 2004)
Methods of Execution
Currently, countries worldwide employ several methods of carrying out executions, including firing squad, hanging, stoning, lethal injection, beheading, crucifixion, and electrocution.
China traditionally used a bullet to the back of the head to carry out death sentences, but has recently introduced mobile killing vans and lethal injections to execute condemned prisoners in an effort to be less offensive to Western sensibilities.
Executions in Iran are usually carried out by hanging. Most countries using this method employ the long drop method, which when used correctly results in the immediate loss of consciousness. Iran however, uses the suspension method, such as forcing a prisoner to stand on a box and kicking it out from under him. This is in order to prolong the suffering of the condemned. It the execution is public, the prisoner is often hoisted by a telescopic crane so everyone can see. Sometimes the body is left for hours.
In mid-1999, Amnesty compiled a list of countries employing the death penalty and the methods of carrying the sentences out.
Last Meal History
The history of last meals is difficult to ascertain, but most governments employing the death penalty subscribe to the practice of offering a last meal. Traditionally, last meals were granted by ancient Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians and Romans. In pre-modern Europe, the tradition is deeply rooted in superstition. When the condemned accepted a last meal it symbolized making peace with the executioner, judge, jury, and witnesses, and furthermore, prevented the executed from returning as a ghost to haunt those responsible.
Actual Last Meals
Thinking that anything at all can be requested and served to the prisoner couldn't be further from the truth. You won't find any truffles or foie gras being served. Actual parameters and restrictions vary from state to state, but tobacco is most often denied and alcohol is always off limits. Texas limits last meals to food available within the prison system, though they occasionally allow food from “the free world." Florida imposes a $40 spending limit, and the Federal Government employs a frugal $20 maximum. Maryland doesn't offer a last meal at all. Some states impose no spending limits - California, for example - which is usually not an issue since most prisoners order fast food.
The following true examples illustrate the types of meals commonly requested – with a few truly odd ones – which tell us something about the prisoners who requested them.
JOHN WASHINGTON HIGHTOWER - GEORGIA
Four fried pork chops, collard greens with boiled okra and "boiling meat", fried corn, fried fatback, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, lemonade, one pint of strawberry ice cream and three glazed donuts.
EPHEMERA: He passed on the opportunity for a minister to pray for him.
JIMMY DALE BLAND – OKLAHOMA
Hot and spicy chicken breast, two slices of sausage pizza with extra cheese, a slice of German chocolate cake, a pint of French vanilla ice cream and a Dr. Pepper.
EPHEMERA: He was terminally ill and had less than a year to live anyway.
CALVIN SHULER – SOUTH CAROLINA
One T-bone steak, well done with A-1 Steak sauce, baked potato, french fries, grape drink and chocolate cake.
EPHEMERA: Shuler made no final statement, however, he kept his eyes locked on a man Corrections Department officials said was his spiritual adviser. "Amen, amen, my brother," the adviser said to Shuler, then hummed softly as the execution was carried out.
GILBERTO REYES – TEXAS
BBQ turkey legs and BBQ brisket, a bowl of cheddar cheese and avocados.
EPHEMERA: With a big grin on his face, Reyes, had a brief final statement, "I love y'all and I'm going to miss y'all," he said, smiling,
MARVELLOUS KEENE - OHIO
Porterhouse steak with A-1 sauce, a pound of jumbo fried shrimp with cocktail sauce, french fries and onion rings with ketchup, dinner rolls and butter, two plums, a mango, a pound of seedless white grapes, German chocolate cake, two bottles of Pepsi and two bottles of A&W cream soda.
DANIEL WILSON - OHIO
A well-done porter house steak with steak sauce, a baked potato with sour cream and bacon bits, salad with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, green peppers, carrots and French dressing, corn on the cob with butter, grapes, macaroni and cheese, dinner rolls and Cool Ranch Doritos with a jar of salsa, strawberry ice cream and strawberry cheesecake--both with real strawberries, a 2-liter of Dr. Pepper with ice and one tea bag.
EPHEMERA: Many people believe ordering a steak well-done is a crime in itself.
THOMAS GRASSO - OKLAHOMA
One dozen steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, a can of Franco-American spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a strawberry milkshake.
EPHEMERA: Prison officials had substituted real spaghetti and meatballs in place of the canned product. His last words included, “"I did not get my Spaghetti-O's. I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this!"
GERALD MITCHELL - TEXAS
One bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers.
EPHEMERA: He really liked Jolly Ranchers.
WALTER LAGRAND - ARIZONA
Six fried eggs, 16 strips of bacon, one large serving of hash browns, a pint of pineapple sherbet, a breakfast steak, a cup of ice, 7-Up, Dr Pepper, Coke, hot sauce, coffee, two sugar packs. And finally, four Rolaids.
EPHEMERA: He did not get heartburn.
ROBERT BUELL - OHIO
A single black, unpitted olive.
EPHEMERA: Buell was paying homage to to Victor Ferguer, the last prisoner executed by the federal government until Timothy McVeigh. Ferguer's last meal was an olive with the pit still in it. He told prison officials that he hoped an olive tree would sprout from his body -- a sign of peace. His unmarked grave in a barren corner of a public cemetery bears no olive tree.
Whatever can be learned from examining last meals is best left to professionals, but it does appeal to our morbid curiosity. Does it say anything about criminals in general? And what you and I, as individuals order for a last meal? We can all hope that we don't ever have to make that decision.
(Sources: Last Suppers; Famous Last Meals from Death Row,Ty Treadwell & Michelle Vernon, Loompanics Unlimited; Encyclopedia II, deadmaneating.blogspot.com; Wikipedia.