Death penalty brings last words, last meals

By Bill Dunn

“This is nothing. I am going to go to sleep and wake up with Jesus. This is the only way God could save me. Thank you, Jesus. I am going, Mom.” Kevin Varga’s last words to his mother in the Huntsville, Texas, death chamber May 12 caught my eye.

Varga, 41, convicted of murder in 1998, had this for his last meal: five white meat pieces of deep-fried chicken, ranch dressing, tater tots, deep-fried mushrooms, two double cheeseburgers, French fries, six Mountain Dews, a pint of chocolate overload ice cream and pepper jack cheese.

State-sanctioned killing seems to work for the “eye for an eye” people who are otherwise vehemently opposed to killing, especially of blastocysts. “You took someone’s life, so it’s only fair that we the people take yours. This is one time it’s out of God’s hands!” (Not since 1964 has anyone been executed for a non-homicide crime.)

In 2009 in the U.S., states took 52 lives. Texas killed the most at 24. Alabama was next with six. This year, through July 1, 30 men have died, 28 by lethal injection and one each by firing squad and electric chair. Of those, 14 were in Texas.

I started paying closer attention to executions after reading Varga’s plea of “God, please take me home.” Asked who would be in the witness room with her as she watched her son die, Beth Varga said “Jesus.” Then came Kevin’s real last meal, taken intravenously: sodium thiopental for sedation, pancuronium bromide for muscle relaxation and potassium chloride to stop his heart.

The one time the electric chair was used this year was March 18 in Jarratt, Va., where Paul Powell, 31, died for the murder of one teen girl and the rape and attempted murder of her younger sister. He looked at the ceiling and stayed mute when asked for last words and requested his last meal be kept private.

“I would like to say the Lord’s Prayer,” Paul Everette Woodward said on May 19 after a well-done hamburger, French fries, onion rings,  chili without beans, vanilla ice cream and two 20-ounce root beers. He went to Mississippi’s Parchman Farm facility 23 years ago for the rape and murder of Rhonda Crane, 24. When he died he weighed 305 pounds.

The next night in Parchman, where a long time ago, Elvis Presley’s dad served time for forgery, Gerald Holland, 72, was executed. He raped and killed a 15-year-old girl in 1986. He read the 23rd Psalm after his Brussels sprouts and T-bone steak

That same day in Virginia, Darick Walker, 37, was executed for two murders a year apart in the mid-1990s. I couldn’t find what he ate, but he said this: “Last words being: I don’t think y’all done this right, took y’all too long to hook it up. You can print that. That’s it.”

May 19, back to Huntsville: Rogelio Cannady, 37, beat his cellmate to death in 1993 with a belt and padlock. He was convicted for killing two runaway teens in 1990. “I’m going to be OK,” he told his family. “Y’all take care of yourself. May God have mercy on my soul.” He’d eaten seven beef enchiladas, pico de gallo, two chicken legs, two cheeseburgers and fries.

June 10, Atmore, Ala.: John Parker, 42, was executed for the 1988 contract killing of a pastor’s wife. “I’m sorry. I don’t ever expect you to forgive me,” Parker said, after fried fish, French fries and iced tea.

June 15, Huntsville, Texas: David Powell’s record 32 years on death row ended. He killed a police officer during a routine traffic stop in 1978. He stayed mute before getting on the gurney. Earlier he’d eaten four eggs, four chicken legs, salsa, four jalapeno peppers, tortillas, hash browns, garlic bread, two pork chops, grated cheese, a pitcher of milk and a pitcher of vanilla shakes.

June 18, Draper, Utah: Ronnie Lee Gardner, 49, twice convicted of murders, had steak, lobster, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7 Up. He last ate 48 hours before facing the firing squad because he wanted to fast for “spiritual reasons.” Then he watched “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, read David Baldacci’s Divine Justice and talked with a Mormon bishop. He declined to offer any last words, but one of the five executioners had some, CNN reported: “The death penalty is nothing more than sending a defective product back to the manufacturer. Let him fix it.”

July 1, Huntsville, Texas: Michael Perry, 28, died for killing nurse Sandra Stotler, 50, in 2001. His final statement: “I want to start off by saying and letting everyone involved in this atrocity know they’re all forgiven by me.” Looking at his mother, he said, “Mom, I love you. I am ready to go. “Coming home dad, coming home dad.” His last meal: three bacon omelets, three chicken enchiladas and three cans each of Pepsi, Coke and Dr Pepper.

“I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this,” complained Thomas Grasso in 1995 in Oklahoma, while saying not a word about Allah or God.

It’s not clear what James D. French ate in 1966 (when he was the only person executed in the U.S.) before he was strapped in Oklahoma’s electric chair. His last words were, “How’s this for a headline? French Fries.”

Ricky Lee Sanderson declined a last meal in 1998 in North Carolina “because I have very strong convictions about abortion and the 33 million babies that have been aborted in this country. Those babies never got a first meal, and that’s why I didn’t take the last in their memory.”

Sanderson was sentenced for raping and murdering 16-year-old Suzi Holliman and burying her in a shallow grave. In prison he embraced evangelical Christianity. A Washington Business Journal writer described the gas chamber scene, where the girl’s father was watching: “Sanderson nodded his head calmly and stared at us. He told Jesus he was coming to meet him in Heaven. Mr. Holliman believed otherwise.”

Capital punishment certainly is cruel but it’s becoming less unusual. Since the death penalty was reauthorized in 1976 in the U.S., 1,210 people have been executed, with most occurring after 1990 and mostly in the bible belt.

Freedom From Religion Foundation