Feel free to download and use any of the graphics, illustrations, videos, and resources on the page for educational purposes and with credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Knowing one’s last meal request and last words can provide valuable new variables to retrospectively assessing the processes leading to past executions. In this study we explored the question of whether traditionally customized last meals might offer signals of defendants’ guilt or innocence. We focused on details related to last meals and last words. More specifically, we ask whether a purportedly innocent condemned person is less likely to accept a last meal, and if they do, how their meal differs from a person who has confessed guilt.
The principal focus of this research was to examine if individuals who deny their guilt are more likely to decline a last meal or to request fewer calories of such a meal. A secondary focus was to examine the hypothesis generated by Bigert and Bergstrom’s claim that “executed people whose guilt was later strongly called into question” typically “chose to decline their Last Supper.” We ultimately sought to explore whether or not the consumption or denial of a last meal constitutes a de facto innocence test.
We built upon a database of 247 people who were executed in the U.S. between 2002 and 2006 to analyze relationships between last meal requests and claims of innocence. We relied on last words as a measure of innocence with the full understanding that they are not necessarily true; however, one would expect (and it is an assumption in our analyses) that anyone who might be innocent would indeed protest their wrongful execution.
We found that deniers of guilt tended to eat last meals significantly less frequently than people who apologized for the crimes for which they were sentenced. People who admit guilt tend to eat significantly larger meals, with an average of 2786 calories, than the rest of the sample, whose meals tended to be 2085 calories. We also found that those who denied guilt selected significantly fewer brand-name items with an average of 0.18 brand-name items among 17 people who denied guilt and an average of 0.56 items among 171 others.
Presuming, for the sake of analysis, that people who claim to be innocent are innocent, our findings support the principal hypothesis that those who are innocent are more likely to either decline a last meal or to request a less indulgent (less caloric) meal than those who admit guilt. That is, those who denied guilt were 2.7 times more likely to decline a last meal than people who admitted guilt (29% versus 8%), whereas those who admitted guilt requested 34% more calories of food than the rest of the sample (2786 versus 2085). However, Bigert and Bergstrom’s claim that innocent people turn down their last meal is generally overstated. The majority of those claiming innocence—71%—still asked for a last meal.
An over-merited implication of these findings would be to consider whether appellate judges and governors should give extra consideration to last-minute appeals from people who declined the last meal. It is possible these findings could influence future considerations involving executions; perhaps, they might encourage the denial of a last meal or, perhaps, they might tip the scales of justice in favor of a stay of execution for someone who declines their invitation to a last meal. Our findings are potentially most useful for understanding and assessing the innocence and perceived innocence of people who have been executed in the past.
Kniffin, Kevin, and Brian Wansink (2014). Death Row Confessions and the Last Meal Test of Innocence. Laws, 3(1), 1-11. doi: 10.3390/laws3010001