It's the stark blue-and-white image of a simple birthday cake that lingers in Julie Green's memory of the plates she has painted.
An Indiana death row inmate, on the eve of his execution in 2007, requested birthday cake as part of his last meal.
"Because he had never had one before," Green said.
They're killers convicted of heinous crimes, but before being condemned to death, their past shaped many things about who they became - including what they would request for their last meal on earth.
"These meals speak to their histories and their families," said Green, an artist and art professor who has made painting death row inmates' final meals into a decade-long project called "The Last Supper."
A bag of Jolly Ranchers or a solitary honeybun. Vending machine sandwiches. Mom's homemade lasagna and ravioli. Pizza, burgers, barbecue and fries. The chosen foods eaten by killers before being killed, painted in blue-and-white simplicity on old plates.
Green was teaching art at the University of Oklahoma in 1999, when she read an article in her local paper about an Oklahoma inmate's execution and became intrigued about the details of a last meal that were included.
A record 98 executions were performed in the United States in 1999, and though Texas has executed the most prisoners overall, per capita, Oklahoma has the highest execution rate.
According to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1976, Oklahoma has executed 25.7 inmates per million of its current population, ranking it No. 1 among states by that measure.
Green said she had mixed feelings the 1st time she read about an inmate's last meal in the newspaper: It seemed so intimate and personal. She called the newspaper and the prison warden to ask, "Why is that in the paper?"
"Because the public wants to know," she was told.
Keep away ghosts?
Since then, she has painted more than 500 plates, including dozens of Oklahoma inmates' final meals, for a project that is exhibited throughout the country - which she hopes inspires Americans in every state to discuss and debate the death penalty.
In May, Oklahoma is scheduled to execute its 100th inmate by lethal injection. Each one was offered a last meal request. But the practice dates back centuries across many cultures, when criminals facing firing squad or hanging were offered a final cigarette, drink or bite to eat, Green said. Some cite the practice's roots as superstition, that the condemned man's acceptance of a final meal prevented him returning as a ghost to haunt those who carried out the execution.
In 1966, James French was the final Oklahoma inmate to be executed by the electric chair before federal legal debates halted all pending executions and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.
His last meal request perhaps reflected a taste for the Julia Child-influenced French cuisine sweeping America in the 1960s: pheasant under glass and cherries jubilee for dessert. The meal was cooked outside the prison and brought to the condemned man, who ate "every bit'' of it, according to Tulsa World archives.
When Charles Coleman became the first Oklahoma inmate executed by lethal injection in 1990, he had no such appetite. Coleman did not request a last meal, and also turned down the standard prison dinner fare of macaroni goulash, salad, peas, cornbread and cake that other inmates ate that night, archives show.
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said he provides the information at each execution to media about death row inmates "because everybody asks for it."
Inmates scheduled to die by lethal injection at Oklahoma State Penitentiary are allowed anything on a menu under $15 and obtainable locally, pending the Warden's approval (Whiskey? Forget it).
Oklahoma's $15 limit was established after death row inmate Thomas Grasso ordered an oddly intricate meal before his 1995 execution that included steamed mussels, tepid Spaghetti-O's with meatballs, a strawberry shake, half a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, lemon wedges, a Burger King double cheeseburger and a mango.
The meal was apparently unsatisfactory, so Grasso released a statement to the media saying, "I did not get my Spaghetti-O's. I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this."
While some other states prepare the requests in their own prison kitchens, Oklahoma outsources this duty. This is partly because executions here used to take place at midnight, and the prison kitchens closed too early, Massie said.
Also, policy dictates that it's safer to bring the meal in from outside, because it lessens the chance of the condemned's fellow prisoners sneaking something in to aid their early escape from the execution chamber, he said.
Last meals at OSP are rarely refused, Massie said.
Though Massie said he doesn't think the frequent requests for pizza, fried chicken, fish, barbecue and hamburgers by Oklahoma inmates indicate anything about their past, he understands the curiosity.
"People are fascinated by the idea of a last meal, because they can personalize it," he said. "They think about what would they have for their last meal. But it is trivial."
In September 2011, Texas prison officials ended the practice of granting condemned prisoners' final meal requests. Lawrence Russell Brewer, convicted for the 1998 hate-crime murder of James Byrd, requested a feast of 2 chicken-fried steaks, a bacon cheeseburger, barbecue meat, fajitas, fried okra, fudge, a pint of ice cream and a meat lover's pizza - but didn't touch it.
Now Texas death row inmates are fed whatever is on the prison menu that day, no special requests.
A sample of killers' requests prior to execution:
Timothy McVeigh, executed by the U.S. goverment in 2001 for killing 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City: two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Robert Clayton, executed by the state in 2001, convicted in 1986 Tulsa County murder case: shrimp, oysters, fish with tartar sauce, a 32-ounce cream soda and strawberry cheese pie.
Roger Dale Stafford, executed by the state in 1995 for the 1978 mass slaying at an Oklahoma City restaurant: six footlong chili cheese dogs, two large chocolate shakes and fries with ketchup and mustard.
(source: Tulsa World)