Are Death Row Inmates Innocent If They Refuse a Last Meal?

A new study finds that prisoners who deny their guilt are more likely to hold out on eating before execution.
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(Photo: NixBC/Flickr)

(Photo: NixBC/Flickr)

In May 2007, Philip Workman, soon to be executed by the state of Tennessee for murdering a police officer, was asked what he wanted for his final meal. Workman, who claimed he had not committed the murder, refused to eat anything. Deliver a pizza to a homeless person instead, he said.

What if death row inmates’ acceptance or refusal of a last meal reveals their actual guilt or innocence in the crime they’ve been accused of committing? That’s a correlation Kevin M. Kniffin, a research associate at Cornell University’s Lab for Experimental Economics and Decision Research, has begun to explore in a study recently published in Law.

The study looked at the cases of 247 people who were sentenced to death in the United States between 2002 and 2006. By tallying each defendant’s acceptance or rejection of a last meal, the amount of calories consumed if a meal was accepted, and the defendant’s profession of innocence or guilt, Kniffin found that people who denied guilt were almost three times as likely to decline a last meal as those who admitted guilt. Among everyone, those who admitted guilt requested meals of 34 percent more calories.

"People who are facing an execution for which they claim innocence appear to lack an appetite when compared with the rest of the sample whereas people who have accepted guilt appear relatively more 'comfortable.'"

Eating or denying a last meal, and the actual amount of food defendants ask for, in other words, may in fact be a window into their culpability—or what they truly believe to be their culpability, at least.

“To the extent that agreement to accept the traditional invitation of a last meal implies some consent to the execution process, it is sensible that people who deny guilt will tend to deny the invitation to a last meal,” Kniffin writes. “People who are facing an execution for which they claim innocence appear to lack an appetite when compared with the rest of the sample whereas people who have accepted guilt appear relatively more ‘comfortable.’”

Kniffin is careful, though, not to pronounce any grand conclusions about the relationship between meals and guilt. Claiming innocence is far from actually being innocent, of course, even if defendants genuinely believe they have done nothing wrong. Kniffin notes that of the more than 1,000 death row inmates executed in the country since 1976, only 10 have been named by the Death Penalty Information Center as “executed but possibly innocent,” even though far more have said they weren't guilty.

Kniffin sees the study as a useful tool for helping to assess the innocence of people who have been executed in the past, as well as a crucial step toward understanding the complex social implications of last meals, whose scientific analysis, in his words, has long been considered “taboo.” Last meals, he writes, are “one of the few channels of communication that have traditionally existed for people facing execution."

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