KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It’s been just over a year since Julie Green, an artist known for painting final meal requests of death row inmates on ceramic plates, died at the age of 60.
Green is known for their project, “The Last Supper,” currently displayed at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington, totaling 1,000 plates.
The paintings depict a range of death row inmates’ final meal requests, from extravagant lobster dinners to fast food meals.
The anniversary of Green’s death came just before the Missouri Supreme Court set an execution date for Leonard Taylor, convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her three children at their home in Jennings, Missouri, in 2008.
He is scheduled to be executed in early February.
“I didn’t know that we had a system of final meals for capital punishment,” Green said last year in an artist presentation for the Portland State University Studio Master of Arts Program.
“I knew that we had capital punishment, and it was one of my concerns, like global warming and climate change, hunger, all those things that we’re concerned about and maybe don’t know what we can do.”
Green became aware of final meal requests after reading about a death row inmate’s last meal in The Norman Transcript, a daily newspaper in Norman, Oklahoma.
The meal included three fried chicken thighs, 10 to 15 shrimp, tater tots with ketchup, two slices of pecan pie, strawberry ice cream, honey and biscuits and a Coke, according to the newspaper article, which they displayed in a slideshow during their presentation.
“Somehow, when I read that final meal in the newspaper, I thought, ‘Well, it humanized death row for me,’ and I was interested in why we would give a meal to somebody before executing them and what the tradition was, so I researched it,” they said in the presentation. (Green preferred gender neutral pronouns according to their obituary)
What are Missouri death row inmates’ last meal requests?
Since the federal government reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Missouri has executed at least 91 inmates as of April 1, 2022, according to a quarterly report released this year by Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that aims to fight racial injustice.
Capital punishment is legal in 27 states, while the remaining 23 states have legislatively abolished the death penalty, as reported by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The state of Missouri has 20 inmates currently sitting on death row, according to the quarterly report data. At least one of those 20 inmates, 56-year-old Carman Deck, died by lethal injection in April after the report was already released.
“My hope is that one day the world will find peace and that we all will learn to be kind and loving to one another,” Deck wrote in his final statement. “We all are a part of this journey through life, connected in every way.”
His final meal request consisted of a salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese, egg, ham and Italian dressing, a pint of cottage cheese, a large bottle of original V8 juice, a 10-ounce steak with A1 sauce, asparagus, jumbo shrimp and a ribeye, according to records provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Just because an inmate requests multiple food items, doesn’t necessarily mean they will receive everything they requested.
FOX4 requested the last meal requests of Missouri death row inmates from the past 20 years and found that 15, or 37% of inmates, requested steak for their final meal, more than any other food.
According to the department, 42 inmates have been executed in the past 20 years, but the department was unable to locate the final meal request for at least one of those inmates.
Of the 41 final meal requests FOX4 received, 14, or 34% of them, requested French fries, 11, or 27%, requested soda, and 10, 24%, asked for pie.
Three out of 41 inmates refused to eat a final meal; 2 inmates asked for a meal, but ultimately refused it when prison staff brought it to them; and just 1 inmate requested a standard meal from the prison’s cafeteria.
In May 2020, the state executed Walter Barton, 64, for the murder of 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler. His final meal request consisted of a double bacon cheeseburger, cheese tater tots, a banana crème pie, cherry Dr. Pepper, barbecue pork steak, a baked potato with cheese, and pecan pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, records show.
“I, Walter “Arkie” Barton, am innocent & they are executing an innocent man!!” he wrote in his final statement.
Leon Taylor was executed in November 2014 for the 1994 murder of Robert Newman. Records show he asked for 12 eggs cooked over easy, one pound of bacon, six glazed donuts and a 20 Oz bottle of Sunny Delight for his final meal.
“Ms Atrid, Ms Sarah – I am truly sorry that our lives had to entwine so tragically,” he wrote in his final statement. “I pray that the Lord will give you peace and continue to comfort you in his love.”
John Middleton was executed in July 2014 for the 1995 triple murder of Randy “Happy” Hamilton, Stacey Hodge and Alfred Pinegar.
He requested a McDonald’s Big Mac, french fries, apple pie, a chocolate milkshake and pork steak for his final meal.
“You are killing an innocent man,” Middleton wrote in his final statement.
To learn more about other final meal requests for death row inmates, visit the Missouri State Penitentiary’s website.
The history of last meals and Julie Green
Some believe final meal requests may be a tradition dating back to the time of Jesus Christ, while others argue the tradition traces back to pre-Christian era, to the fear of ghosts, as stated in a 2014 study published by the Mercer University School of Law.
“‘In Ancient Greece you had to feed the person who was going to be executed, so that they could cross the River Styx into the underworld, and not come back as a hungry ghost,”” the study cites.
Other theories on how final meals became routine include celebrations and communions held by executioners, clergy, inmates, and jurists, which became common practice in eighteenth century Germany and London, according to the study.
“Put one way by Celia Shapiro, an artist who has compiled photographs of last meals, ‘The process of composing the pictures became a profound meditation on violence and how the state metes out justice and retribution. The meal is life given to the body, the execution is life taken from the body,’” the study cites.
In 1972, the United States Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional, but it was reinstated just four years later.
The number of death row inmates began to incrementally increase in the US after the reinstatement of capital punishment.
When the number of death row inmates finally began declining in the 2000s, Green later began a project called First Meal, painting meals inmates who were exonerated or released from prison ate after being released.
“Andy Warhol said, ‘The artist of the future will just point, I paint a point,’” Green said in closing during their presentation.
Green planned to paint the last meal requests of inmates until capital punishment was abolished, or until they had painted 1,000 plates — whichever came first, they told PBS in 2015.
They painted their 1,000th plate in September 2021 on an oval platter depicting a single bottle of Coca-Cola, the one thing requested by a Texas man on death row in 1997.
Green died just weeks later.
“I think of that list of meals that I’ve collected from newspapers and the department of prisons as sort of the saddest poem in the world, you know?” they said in response to a student’s question during the presentation. “It’s numbing, and there is a weight to it.”