I was in a dark room no bigger than the tiny office I’m working in now. I was packed shoulder to shoulder with other reporters as we watched executioners from the Ohio Department of Corrections try (and repeatedly fail) to start an injection site in the arm of 51-year-old Kenneth Biros.
Above image: Julie Green and “The Last Supper” installation view.
I wish everyone could see what I saw that morning in the Lucasville death chamber. The rules against photography or videos of executions make sense, in a way, even though the premise that necessitates them is fundamentally grotesque. But by denying video the state controls the narrative surrounding the death penalty. Yes, I can write that Biros was panicked and in pain as executioners took 30 agonizing minutes to find a vein in his arm, sticking him again and again with the needle that would eventually kill him. I could tell you how he heaved on the gurney before he was finally still, a large vein protruding from his forehead. I could tell you about the revolting (but understandable) displays by the victim’s family who muttered things like, “I want to see him cry,” and who cheered when Biros died as though the executioners had just scored a touchdown. My story, however, is never going to fully depict the horror that unfolds dozens of times each year in tiny concrete rooms across the country.
If you could have seen these things for yourself you might demand that someone put a stop to them. I’m convinced this is a major reason why the state forbids executions to be recorded. By keeping you at a distance from the killings your taxes sponsor, the government avoids criticism. The convict remains an abstraction, a concept rather than a human being. You’re more likely to believe the ridiculous fiction that these killings are carried out cleanly. You’re more likely to assume these killings keep society whole rather than polluting it with barbarism. The public’s consent is easier to maintain when they’re not allowed to understand the final moments of the person strapped to the gurney.
Oregon State University art professor Julie Green confronts that lack of context with The Last Supper, (Feb. 21 – April 12, Dayton Art Institute) a massive ongoing series of porcelain plates with paintings that depict the last meals convicts requested before being put to death. For as much as we deny death row inmates their humanity, we have a fascination with these grim pieces of trivia. Last meals are often reported in articles about executions and many web sites and Buzzfeed-style lists are devoted to them. Green said she had the idea for the project when she was reading a news report of an execution and was struck by the strangeness of the last meal:
“Three fried chicken thighs, 10 or 15 shrimp, tater tots with ketchup, two slices of pecan pie, strawberry ice cream, honey and biscuits, and a Coke.”
She began painting these meals on secondhand porcelain dinner plates, up to 50 a year. She’s since created 600 of these plates, sometimes making one each day.
Green, who vowed to continue the series until the death penalty is abolished, wields this information like a club. Last meals are one of the few windows we have into the life of the convict, one of the few chances we have to see the convict as a person. For obvious reasons convicts don’t speak publicly leading up to a trial; their families don’t speak to the media often out of a sense of shame. The convicts never open their mouths until they’re begging a judge for their lives and this often comes off as contemptible to the public. This all serves to force the convict into a box, to make it easier for us to tell ourselves we know all we need to know about them.
Green’s works brilliantly subvert that process. Individually, the plates are deeply personal. With their very specific but minimal presentation of story the plates force you to contemplate the dead people behind them. One convict requested a birthday cake and Green notes on the plate that the convict had never had a birthday cake before. What the hell?! What does that say about this person’s life? how does it inform their crime? what would it be like to eat birthday cake for the first time on the day you’re executed? what does killing this person say about us?
The works scale, shifting the focus from the individuals to the death penalty as a whole. Human beings are bad at understanding numbers; we can hear the fact that 1,405 people have been executed in the United States since 1976 but to us it’s just a statistic. It’s narrative that connects with us. One convict’s story forces us to think, seeing 600 such stories gathered in one place creates a roar that is impossible to shut out. It’s like having hundreds of dead people shouting at you at once.
Green considers the series part of a dialogue regarding the death penalty. That’s apt, because she’s able to introduce different topics while using the same medium. One argument against the death penalty is that innocent people could be executed. That’s not idle speculation, 151 death row inmates have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1976. Green has two plates that show the first meals exonerated prisoners had after being released. You’d assume these works would be celebratory, and to a degree they are, but as I noted before Green subverts our assumptions about prisoners with narrative detail. One plate tells the story of Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon, who spent 17 years on death row. His plate is colorful and it is adorned with flowers, typical decorative elements for porcelain. However, you’d never use fine china for something as humble as a Burger King value meal, which is what Melendez-Colon ate. The plate notes that he promptly threw up after eating it.
I looked up Melendez-Colon and realized his plate, as succinct as it is, is a perfect summary of his story. What happened to him should infuriate everyone who has a conscience. This man spent nearly two decades on death row for a murder he did not commit; he was put there largely on the testimony of a snitch who held a grudge against him. Melendez-Colon could not read or write in English and he was not given an interpreter at trial. He was exonerated when his attorneys found evidence that the real killer confessed to the crime before he died. When Melendez-Colon was finally released the state of Florida gave him just $100 without so much as an apology for the 17 years they stole from him. He probably used some of that pathetic sum of money eat as cheaply as he could and his first meal as a free man made him vomit.
He deserved better. It’s a very real possibility that some of these plates belong to dead people who were innocent as well. It’s horrifying to me to think that a bag of Jolly Ranchers, a steak, a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew, a pizza or an ice cream cone could represent the last feeble compensation our society allowed someone shortly before killing them for a crime they didn’t commit.
I could react for days based on the possibilities Green raises with these works. In their brevity and focus they tell you as much about the death penalty as you can stomach. They’re a form of honesty you’re not going to see from the conventional sources. This is art that grabs you by the hair and drags you closer to the truth. Green won’t stop until the killings do and I hope we’ll see the day she puts her brush down.
Bill Rodgers is a Contributing Editor at CFile.
Any thoughts about this post? Share yours in the comment box below.