Imagine sitting at a restaurant table and being handed a menu with only five options, all of them pretty simple fare. One features fried chicken and rice; another, steak, eggs, and toast; yet another, tater tots, onion rings, and enchiladas. After some hemming and hawing, you settle on the chicken, fries, and chocolate ice cream. You swallow down the ho-hum meal, receive your check, and are unnerved to see a special note attached at the bottom:?”You just had the last meal of a wrongfully executed man. Please show your support against the death penalty by signing our petition.”
Last Meal Restaurant might sound like the name of the diner in which Tony Soprano was ostensibly bumped off, but in fact it was a short-lived Puerto Rico restaurant operated by Amnesty International. Attempting to raise awareness of wrongful executions, the organization served only the last meals of five men who were found or at least presumed to be innocent following their deaths.
It’s unclear how many men and women have been wrongfully put to death since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, but of the 1,300+ executed, 142 men and women have been exonerated from death row after being found innocent — some of them mere moments before they were scheduled to meet their end.
Others, however, were not so lucky. Below, you can see the last meals of five such men who were needlessly killed. All were served at The Last Meal Restaurant. The dinner tray photos come courtesy of?James Reynolds.
TEXAS — Convicted in 1992, executed in 2004, proven innocent in 2010
Arguably the most well-known case of wrongful execution in recent memory, Mr. Willingham was convicted of murdering his three children by arson. Following his death, new evidence has confirmed that previous “investigations” into the house fire were faulty and negligent. Gov. Rick Perry infamously never acknowledged that the Texas justice system had made a mistake and, in fact, brought an abrupt halt to investigations into Willingham’s sentence and execution.
FLORIDA — Convicted in 1981, executed in 1998, presumed innocent since 1993
Mr. Jones was convicted of murdering a police officer in Jacksonville, Florida. He initially confessed to doing so but later argued that he had been coerced into it, which was confirmed by a police eyewitness. Even though the lead detective and arresting officer were stripped of their uniforms for ethics violations, and even though many witnesses over the years pointed to a different suspect, Jones was nevertheless “brought to justice,” as they say.
TEXAS — Convicted in 1984, executed in 1997, presumed innocent since 2000
No physical evidence was ever found or used to prove that Mr. Spence killed three teenagers in 1982, the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. The police lieutenant tasked with supervising the investigation, in fact, later commented: “I do not think David Spence committed this crime.” The lead homicide detective?agreed: “My opinion is that David Spence was innocent. Nothing from the investigation ever led us to any evidence that he was involved.”
TEXAS — Convicted in 1989, executed in 2000, proven innocent in 2010
The only “evidence” that placed Mr. Jones at the scene of a liquor-store robbery and murder was a single strand of hair — a strand that, through DNA testing conducted in 2000, was found to belong not to Jones but the store’s owner. Despite this revelation, then-Gov. George W. Bush refused to grant Jones a stay of execution.
TEXAS — Convicted in 1985, executed in 1993, proven innocent in 2010
When he was only 17 years old, Mr. Cantu was convicted of the shooting murder of a San Antonio man during an attempted robbery. Today, it’s more than apparent that Cantu was not involved in the crime. Not only has Cantu’s co-defendant regretfully admitted that he allowed Cantu to take the fall, but Juan Moreno, who was wounded in the shooting, claims that authorities pressured him into identifying the young man as the shooter.
These are but five wrongfully executed men out of countless others. As you no doubt know,?Texas leads the nation?with 508 executions, which is 4.6 percent more than Virginia and Oklahoma, the states with the second-most executions. Bush presided over 152 of those deaths, whereas Perry has currently sent 268 to the gallows, more than any other governor in U.S. history. Combined, these two men have overseen the execution of nearly 83 percent of all Texas death row inmates. The 420 instances of capital punishment on their watches account for nearly a third of all executions performed in the U.S.?since 1976.
You can watch the story of The Last Meal Restaurant below. Let us know your thoughts at the Liberal America Facebook page. Sign up for our free daily newsletter to receive more great stories like this one.
Joseph Guyer?lives in Texas. An ad man by trade, he firmly agrees?with Bill Clinton that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what is right with America. You can read more of his work at?Liberals Unite?and follow him on Twitter?@joerobguy.