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Last supper

Faces of death at Gallery Saintonge



Tyrone Darks, Oklahoma, Jan. 13, 2004: six extra-crispy chicken breasts, six rolls, one bag of jelly beans, a bag of red licorice, six lemon-glazed doughnuts and six cream sodas. Kenneth Bruce, Texas, January 14, 2004: double-meat cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and mayo, french fries, orange juice and pecan pie. Lewis Williams, Jr., Ohio, also January 14, 2004, in Ohio: declined a special last meal but ate the regular prison dinner of smoked sausage, rice with black-eyed peas, collard greens, bread, vanilla pudding and grape Kool-Aid.

It’s easy to understand the morbid fascination of the last meal, the last real choice a condemned criminal gets to make, except what to turn his mind to in those last few hours and, ultimately, how to go out when the time comes. There’s nothing about a last meal that suggests a desire for reprieve or forgiveness, only a desire for some small measure of last-minute comfort. In that respect, last meals can sometimes speak louder than last words (Darks’ were, “I’ll see y’all later. This is it. It’s over.”).

Last meals are usually simple, homely affairs (like Kenneth Bruce’s cheeseburger with pecan pie), though it’s not clear how much of this is personal preference and how much is simple economy; in requesting a last meal, a federal criminal has to comply with a maximum tab of $20. Thomas Grasso, executed in 1995 in Oklahoma, got his money’s worth with an eclectic feast that included steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger, canned spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and a strawberry milkshake. Even so, Grasso was incensed enough by one substitution to include the following complaint in his final statement: “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s. I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this!”

Last meals can seem chilling in their banality: John Wayne Gacy, convicted of killing 33 young men and boys, was a former manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and feasted on the Colonel’s special-recipe yardbird just before his 1994 death by lethal injection. They can also be grimly funny: Walter Lagrand (Arizona, 1999) polished off six fried eggs, 16 strips of bacon, hash browns, a pint of pineapple sherbet, a breakfast steak, hot sauce, three kinds of soft drink, coffee, two packs of sugar—and four Rolaids tablets. And last meals can have political significance: In the months before his execution, Timothy McVeigh was badgered by PETA activists to eat a meatless last meal; he eventually settled for two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Victor Ferguer, the last inmate to be executed by the federal government before McVeigh, requested a single, unpitted black olive before his execution in 1963 in the hopes that an olive tree would sprout from his grave. Paying tribute to Ferguer, an Ohio inmate made the same request before his own execution in 2002. Robert Madden (Texas, ’97) asked that his last meal be donated to a homeless person. His request was denied.

According to interviewer Geraldo Rivera, convicted killer Gary Graham claimed to have actually eaten six last meals, or rather been offered last meals on six different occasions, his execution stayed each time at the last minute by court intervention. Though later discredited, Graham’s claim seemed to underline the casual cruelty of the system, and was certainly sensational enough for Rivera to ask Court TV anchor Nancy Grace, “What do you think of a system in which a man will now be getting his seventh last meal?”

A portrait of Graham is one of about two dozen similar portraits in an exhibit of death row photographs taken by Lou Jones and currently on display at the Gallery Saintonge. It’s hard to look at the picture without thinking of all kinds of lasts: last days, last words, last chances, and, with a little reflection, last meals and what they mean. Graham is pictured staring away from the camera, apparently out a window, as though already surveying whatever it is he thinks awaits him. His portrait is one of a few others in the show with an eerie postscript: He’s dead now, executed despite serious doubts as to his guilt, in June, 2000. Not as Gary Graham, but by his chosen name of Shaka Sankofa.

Finality is written on every face in the exhibit (and in the companion book, Jones’ Final Exposure). We scan them for terror, regret, resignation, even relief that the end is near. Edward Dean Kennedy, an inmate with whom the photographer became close friends in the short time he had left, still looks as though Jones had just pulled him away from something very private. Jones and Kennedy were the same age and had lived in the same Boston neighborhood. “We even looked alike,” Jones writes in Final Exposure. “At times I couldn’t tell where his personality left off and mine began. We shared an interest in art, music and politics. It seemed as if our lives had begun together, diverged, then converged again in Florida State Prison. I had gone to college; he had gone to hell.” Not realizing at the time that it was to be their only meeting before Kennedy’s execution, Jones later recalled: “For some reason, the guards allowed us to exceed the specified time, perhaps knowing how little time Ed had left. In Florida, death warrants are delivered by helicopter. Its sound sends chills through everyone, guards and prisoners alike.” Kennedy was electrocuted in July, 1992.

One or two inmates pout or snarl gamely for the camera; most sit, folded in on themselves, gazing down at the floor or into corners. The exhibit signage lists dates and some personal data (marital status, number of children), much like in the book. You can get the whole story if you like, or use your imagine to limn the furrows.

Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row is up at the Gallery Saintonge, 216 North Higgins, through Feb. 21. On Jan. 30, Eve Malo of Amnesty International will give a special presentation on the death penalty. Call the gallery at 543-0171 for more information.

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