analyses of Rector v. Arkansas
have regularly highlighted that the defendant requested that part of his last meal be saved so that he could it eat later. While the observation is typically raised as part of arguments that Rector was incompetent and unfit for execution, the more basic fact is that commentators have drawn important inferences about Rector’s mental state from how he treated his last meal. In this essay, we draw upon multiple disciplines in order to apply the same inferential logic to a much broader sample and explore the question of whether traditionally customized last meals might offer signals of defendants’ guilt or innocence. To investigate this, the content of last-meal requests and last words reported for people executed in the United States during a recent five-year period were examined. Consistent with the idea that declination of the last meal is equivalent to a signal of (self-perceived) innocence, those who denied guilt were 2.7 times as likely to decline a last meal than people who admitted guilt (29% versus
8%). Consistent with the complementary theory that people who admit guilt are relatively more “at peace” with their sentence, these individuals requested 34% more calories of food than the rest of the sample (2786 versus
2085 calories). A third finding is that those who denied guilt also tended to eat significantly fewer brand-name food items. Previous discussions of last meals have often lacked quantitative measurements; however, this systematic analysis shows that last meal requests offer windows into self-perceived or self-proclaimed innocence. Knowing one’s last meal request and one’s last words can provide valuable new variables for retrospectively assessing the processes that led to past executions.