Denying the condemned a last martini is cruel


After years of soul searching, wavering and tiptoeing around the issue of the death penalty, I've finally made up my mind once and for all. I'm firmly against it.

That was my position when I was a young man. I went through my enlightened liberal phase and argued that it was wrong for society to take even a monster's life and that the threat of death didn't deter criminals.

But then I evolved into my indignant taxpayer phase and argued that creeps like John Gacy, Richard Speck and Ted Bundy weren't worth the expense of food and lodging.

This led to my hard-eyed anti-anarchy phase, during which I called for the immediate execution of slack-jawed boobs who litter the parks, jar entire neighborhoods awake by blasting their car stereos or don't apologize when they dial the wrong number.

Then I switched to an anti-execution position when it became clear that most Death Row inmates were poor and kind of stupid. That seemed unjust because I knew quite a few rich and smart criminals who were just as deserving.

But I lost my sympathy for poor and stupid menaces when a couple of young robbers who appeared poor and stupid stuck a gun to my nose and I came within one finger twitch of going out with a bang as well as a whimper.

Now I have had my final change of heart.

While I believe in swift and stern justice for killers, I am opposed to cruel and unusual punishment.

And in following the accounts of recent executions in Illinois, as well as Texas, Florida and other states that are really into zapping killers, I have found that most of them involve needlessly unusual meanness.

The evidence can be found in the last meals that are consumed by the condemned.

As we all know, a person who is about to be put to death is allowed to eat just about anything he wants, within reason.

Some really stuff themselves, such as an Oklahoma killer who ordered a Burger King double cheeseburger, canned spaghetti and meatballs, barbecued ribs, steamed mussels and clams, two milkshakes and pumpkin pie with whipped cream.

In Texas, a killer was furious to the end because he was served regular spaghetti instead of the can of O-shaped pasta he had requested.

Bundy had steak and eggs, and Gacy had fried chicken. And an Illinois convict recently settled for a cup of coffee and a smoke.

But I noticed a strange omission in all of the last meals.

Not one pre-dinner martini or Scotch on the rocks. No robust red wine with that last rare steak. No snifter of after-dinner cognac. Not even a humble shot of Old Skull Popper with a beer chaser.

That struck me as being odd. I'm sure that many of the people reading this would agree that if there was ever an occasion when a couple of martinis, a bottle of wine and a touch of brandy would hit the spot, it's when you are about to take that dreaded last walk.

And I wondered why the convicts didn't request their favorite beverages. It couldn't be that they were concerned about their livers or feared being arrested for drunken dying.

So I asked the prison officials, and they said the answer is simple: Liquor cannot be served as part of the last meal.

Nic Howell, of the Illinois Department of Corrections, said: A prison is a state building. And it is against the law to serve liquor in a state building.

"Sure, they'll ask for it, but they can't get it. We try to accommodate them as much as we can with a last meal, but not with booze."

That was what they said in Texas, Louisiana and other states. No drinking on prison grounds.

"They'll say, 'I can really use a drink,' but it is against the law," a Texas official said.

If that isn't cruel and unusual punishment, I don't know what is. Even a hardened criminal should be permitted one last buzz before he departs.

But I'm sure that there are pitiless avengers who will say that convicted killers don't deserve even that small gesture of kindness.

To satisfy them, drinks could be served early enough so that the condemned man would have enough time to pass out and wake up with a world-class hangover.

When he moans and says those ancient words, "Oh, man, my aching head. I feel like I'm about to die," the warden could say, "How'd you guess?"

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