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4 March 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 11:56am

Why are we so fascinated by the macabre ritual of the death row last meal?

Kelly Gissendaner, due to be the first woman executed by the US state of Georgia in 70 years, chose a feast of junk food for her last meal. Her selection has been pored over by the media – why?

By Eleanor Margolis

Earlier this week, Kelly Gissendaner sat down to two Burger King Whoppers, fries, cornbread and ice cream. This meal – a banquet of fast food accompanied by salad – was supposed to be her last. Under such circumstances, the choice of comfort food becomes poignant and that of salad becomes sadly incongruous. A bit like doing press-ups while your plane enters into a nosedive. Some people must genuinely like salad, I suppose.

On Monday, Gissendaner was due to be the first woman executed by the US state of Georgia in 70 years. Convicted of plotting her husband’s murder, the 46-year-old has been on death row for nearly two decades. And as if all those years spent waiting to be executed weren’t psychological torture enough, Gissendaner’s death by lethal injection has now been postponed twice in the past couple of weeks. The most recent postponement was unrelated to Gissendaner’s lawyers’ bids for clemency. The pentobarbital – the chemical used in a lethal injection – awaiting her looked “cloudy” and was deemed unfit for use.

Meanwhile, Gregory Owen, Mr Gissendaner’s actual murderer, is serving a life sentence. In this case, the US legal system found a “plotting woman” to be considerably more guilty than a violent man. Owen, Gissendaner’s lover, was allegedly in her thrall. Once again, the scheming she-devil, Lady Macbeth trope has been wheeled out to make sure a man gets off lightly. Not – of course – that a life sentence is akin to a slap on the wrist, but in a state with the death penalty it’s far from the worst punishment.

While Gissendaner’s lawyers continue to appeal for clemency, it’s the condemned woman’s hulking “last” meal that’s really been grabbing the headlines, over here in the UK at least. So what is it about the macabre ritual that is the death row last meal that we all seem to find so fascinating?

Last year, in an unprecedented case of what’s technically known as Hoxton twattery, a pop-up concept restaurant (yes, concept) called Death Row Dinners was due to open in East London. After a public outcry, it didn’t. Also in recent years, Kiwi photographer Henry Hargreaves’ project No Seconds, in which he recreates and photographs the last meals of several people who have been executed in the US, gained a fair bit of media attention. From Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s childlike two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream, to murderer Victor Feguer’s almost poetic single black olive, it’s hard not to read some kind of significance into a last meal. With its biblical undertones, it points towards an America that remains steeped, socially and politically, in evangelical Christianity.  

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After all, it’s a ritual that in itself speaks a great deal about the barbarism of execution. Of course, not granting a death row inmate their free choice of last meal would be even more barbaric. But when humanity is reduced to letting someone binge on lobster before pumping them full of lethal poison, you have one heck of a problem. Since 1976, the US has executed 1,402 people. That’s 1,402 helpings of burgers and apple pie, or steak and ice cream – or whatever it is in which people seek comfort when they know they’re about to die.

It always amazes me that someone hours away from lethal injection or the electric chair (last used just two years ago) could have an appetite in the first place. The empty plastic food tray photographed by Hargreaves to represent the last meal – or lack thereof – of murder and kidnapper Angel Nieves Diaz proves that sometimes they don’t. So Kelly Gissendaner’s mountain of rich and greasy junk food becomes all the more startling. I wonder, in this rare case of having to pick a second last meal, if she’ll choose the same again.