Many Death Row Inmates Remain Surprisingly Positive

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, March 6, 2016
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“Death comes to all. His cold and sapless hand / Waves o’er the world, and beckons us away. / Who shall resist the summons?” —Thomas Love Peacock

In A Nutshell

When studies looked at the last words of death row inmates, they found that many of them were going into their final moments with words of positivity, hope, forgiveness, and love. They suggest that this is a sort of psychological defense mechanism that allows us to cope with the overwhelming knowledge of what’s about to happen. Another study of the final hours of a person’s life has found that those who have made peace with their guilt and the inevitability of death are more likely to request a last meal and more likely to request something high-calorie.

The Whole Bushel

Most of us wander through life with a blissful ignorance of whether or not it’s going to be our last day among the living. For inmates on death row, there’s none of that ignorance once their date is set. As that date grows closer and closer, they’re forced to take a long look at their lives and what’s going to happen at the end of it.

Regardless of your beliefs on the death penalty, it’s inarguable that making a person aware of the exact day and moment they’re going to die does some weird things to the mind.

A few studies looked at what last words and last meals said about the people who were behind them, and they revealed some surprising things.

Researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany took a look at the last words of 407 inmates before they were executed in Texas.

They were studying the inmates’ states of mind in those final moments. Not only were there more positive last words than negative, the rate of positivity was higher than a baseline of positive words in other written materials and other statements regarding mortality. The majority of the statements were focused on the self, the present, and a place in society, rather than seeing the expected pattern of death-related words.

In fact, the most common emotion expressed in the inmates’ last words was love. They asked for forgiveness, made religious references, and expressed affection for others in their lives.

The study also looked at the language in 167 suicide notes and found a strikingly similar pattern. Much of the language used included positive emotions and things like gratitude.

Researchers suggested that the positivity and emotions expressed in those last words are something of a defense mechanism to help a person confront their imminent mortality. The terror and fear is still there, they say, but we’re likely designed to approach the end with the aid of a psychological mechanism to help us process it.

Another fascinating study from Cornell University looked at the correlation of last meals to feelings of guilt and innocence.

The study started with a consideration of Ricky Ray Rector, who saved his requested pecan pie for after his execution. This started a debate over whether he was mentally competent to face execution, let alone stand trial for what he’d done. When the Cornell researchers looked more closely at last meals—what was requested, refused, and what was done with the food—they found a correlation between the meal and the person’s attitude toward his (or her) actions.

The data spanned five years, and they found that those that maintained their innocence (or denied their guilt, which isn’t entirely the same thing) were 2.7 times more likely to refuse a last meal. Those who had faced what they had done, asked for forgiveness, and found some kind of peace with the whole thing asked for their last meal. They asked for more food, and they consumed up to 34 percent more calories. Oddly, those who denied their guilt but still asked for a last meal avoided one thing in particular: brand name foods.

So what are the most common requests for a last meal? About 84 percent of them include some sort of calorie-dense meat, about 68 percent include fried chicken, and about 67 percent ask for a dessert. All these foods have something in common—they’re comfort foods.

Show Me The Proof

Cornell Food & Brand Lab: Death Row Nutrition; A Final Test of Conscience
“Death Row Confessions and the Last Meal Test of Innocence,” by Kevin M. Kniffin and Brian Wansink
“Positive Emotional Language in the Final Words Spoken Directly Before Execution,” by Sarah Hirschmuller and Boris Egloff

  • OldBoris

    If I knew I was going to be executed for a crime I did not commit (I am not criminally inclined apart from the normal traffic, hate speech and illegal downloading stuff), I would write a ridiculously long polemic against everyone I ever met and read it out over the course of ten, fifteen hours before my execution. Might destroy some reputations as a final act.

    • JenniferBunny

      I’d go a lot longer than 15 hours.

  • Xan Xan