A double voyeur, with macabre on the side

You have one last request for a meal before the State of Georgia dispatches you to the hereafter.

Will it be filet mignon? Chicken Kiev? Or just a good old Southern meat-and-three?

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed Wednesday for getting her boyfriend to kill her husband, is sending her guards to Burger King.

Gissendaner decided to Super-size her last meal: two cheese Whoppers with the trimmings, two large orders of French fries, cherry vanilla ice cream, cornbread, buttermilk, popcorn and lemonade. She also wants a healthy alternative: a salad with boiled eggs, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, carrots and cheese topped with Paul Newman buttermilk dressing.

Georgia’s executioner is again busy, which means it’s time again for the media’s — and public’s — morbid fascination with last meals of the condemned.

Last month, Georgia executed Warren Lee Hill, who declined a special last meal. In 2013 he similarly declined anything special, so he ate a chuck wagon patty, brown gravy, mashed potatoes, dry pinto beans, peas and carrots, corn bread, cake and iced tea before his execution was stayed.

Andrew Howard Brannan, also executed last month, went with a breakfast theme: Three eggs over easy, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, sausage, pecan waffles with strawberries, milk, apple juice. And decaf coffee. His nerves were no doubt already a-jangle.

Gissendaner’s order is not new. Shortly before sitting in Georgia’s electric chair in 1988, James E. Messer Jr. ate two cheese Whoppers, two orders of French fries, a vanilla milkshake and lemon meringue pie.

The last meal is a macabre ritual that has become a matter of public fascination. Few news stories fail to mention what the doomed prisoner eats. The whole thing is a contradiction — a last act of kindness and a sick joke. Who needs to digest a couple Whoppers as poison surges through your veins?

But for those looking on from a safe distance, the subject mixes two subjects of great interest: mortality and food.

“Food is a common denominator,” said Ty Treadwell, who has studied the subject. “Picking a last meal makes people wonder what they’d order.”

Treadwell, a former Atlanta resident, said he and his friend Michelle Vernon often read about last meal requests in the AJC and decided others must also be morbidly curious. So they researched the subject and wrote “Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row.”

“People are both fascinated and repulsed by those who are opposite of them,” said Treadwell. “It’s ‘I’ve never killed anyone with a hammer, but I love fried chicken, too.’”

Dobie Gillis Williams became famous when he was profiled in “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” a book written by a Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean.

The Louisiana prisoner made Treadwell’s book because his last meal consisted of 12 candy bars, two kinds of pie (coconut and lemon) and chocolate ice cream.

Oklahoma murderer Thomas Grasso, died a food critic. The prisoner got a Burger King double cheeseburger, a strawberry milkshake, pumpkin pie, a mango and a 16-ounce can of Franco-American Spaghetti with meat balls, served at room temperature.

“Please tell the media, I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s, I got spaghetti,” he said on his way out. “I want the press to know this.”

Texas always did it big — until they didn’t.

David Castillo, executed in 1998, ordered 24 soft shell tacos, six enchiladas, six tostadas, two whole onions, five jalapeños, two cheeseburgers, one chocolate shake, one quart of milk and one package of Marlboro cigarettes. (He wasn’t allowed the smokes, and one report said he was limited to just six tacos.)

Texas finally pulled the plug on the gluttony in 2011 because of Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the men convicted of killing a black man by dragging him behind a truck.

Brewer ordered two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream and three root beers.

And then he ate none of it.

Georgia defense attorney Mike Mears said some prisoners order as much as they can to jerk around the system. “It’s their last act of defiance.”

“Others order food that had good memories with families,” said Mears, who has been involved with 167 death penalty cases and had six clients die. “It’s probably the last pleasure they will ever experience.”

Many of the meals, Mears said, come from a truck stop near Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. Comfort food is the norm. Most on death row don’t have much experience with fancy foods. Treadwell said double burgers seem to be far and away the choice of the doomed.

But, Mears said, it wasn’t always just the prisoners digging in.

In the 198os, Mears discovered that the Corrections Department produced a spread for those involved in the execution. One inventory included of 10 pounds of Turkey Ham, 20 pounds of Turkey Pastrami, 10 pounds of Turkey Salami, and 225 pounds of chicken. The menu also included pounds of pimento cheese, trays of hors d’oeuvres and cheese straws.

“The prisoner gets it before the execution,” Mears said. “The guards get it after.”

The practice was discontinued by the time Wayne Garner, a former legislator, headed the prison system in the 1990s. He oversaw 11 executions and said he tried to limit the excess in requests. “It seemed too much a celebratory meal,” he said.

But he said, the wishes of those locked up alone, people who look at cream-colored cement-block walls for 20 years, are not the choices you or I would prefer.

“One time they called me and said, ‘He wants eight Eskimo Pies.’ I said, ‘Well, go ahead.’”

“I guess they’re looking to go back to a happier time,” he said. “One guy asked, ‘Do you mind if I take off my shoes and walk across that grass? I haven’t done it in 2o years.’ “

Did he let him? Yeah, Garner said, adding, “It’s weird what they think of when the time comes.”

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