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Painting the First Taste of Freedom

Artist Julie Green paints the meals eaten after exonerees — those wrongly convicted of crimes — leave prison for the first time

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In 1995, a fire broke out in the trailer home where Kristine Bunch lived with her 3-year-old son, Anthony. Bunch made it out; her little boy died. Prosecutors claimed she started the fire, and charged her with arson and felony murder. Just 22 years old and pregnant with her second child, she was found guilty on both counts and sentenced to consecutive terms of 60 years for murder and 50 years for arson. She spent 16 years in prison before lawyers discovered exculpatory evidence showing no sign of arson in her trailer, hidden by prosecutors. Bunch was exonerated on August 8, 2012.

On the day of her release, to celebrate her freedom, Bunch’s lawyers took her out for a meal at Bistro 318 in Indianapolis. They were joined by her son Trenton, now a teenager, and her mother, who had raised him. For her first meal, Bunch asked for something colorful. “Everything in prison is so bland,” she said in her interview with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. “They brought out a platter of beautiful colorful fresh vegetables with pita and hummus.” The chef, learning she loved seafood, also made her scallops with grits. “It was a wonderful place,” she said. “It was just unreal, a moment snapped out of time, like a dream I expected someone to come snatch.”

Bunch is just one of 2,280 people across the country who have been exonerated since 1989, according to the National Exoneration Registry. That breaks down to a total of 20,267 years stolen, or an average of 8.9 years per case. The artist Julie Green — known for her series on final meals requested by death row inmates, titled “Last Supper” — wants to paint the first meals those exonerees eat after leaving prison.

To gather menus and memories from those first meals, Green has been working with Sara Sommervold, associate director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. She has sent a short questionnaire to all its clients who have been exonerated (there have been 41 over the center’s 20-year history): Where did you eat your first meal? Who did you eat with? What did you order? Is there any particular reason you wanted the food you ordered?

The first painting in Green’s new series, which was completed in late September, is an aerial view of Bunch’s first meal as a free woman; the one that took place at that Indianapolis bistro. The painting is brightly colored and joyful, almost a celebration. A bowl of hummus is surrounded by pita, cucumbers, carrots, and bell peppers in red, orange, and green. A plate of scallops sits in the center of the tableau; up in the corner is a glass being filled with Champagne. The tablecloth is painted with dozens of red birds — the Indiana state bird is the cardinal — all in flight, giving the painting a sense of escape, of flying free and unchained. Tucked behind the napkin is the only dark component of the piece; a small rectangular brown plaque that reads: “Indiana. Murder. 16 Years.”

Green’s paintings use oil, acrylic, or watercolor, depending on the meal and other pieces in her series will recreate those “first” meals. “When I conceived of this I thought the paintings would represent a celebration, a happy moment,” Green says. “But in fact, when 16 years of someone’s life has been taken away from them, there’s a strong heaviness balanced against the joy. It is depressing and hopeful and exhausting.”

Green was raised in a conservative Christian family; they were in favor of the death penalty. Her father was a Navy man, and she lived in 13 states over the course of her youth. Though she was transient, she has strong food memories thanks to a matriarchy of fine cooks. “I remember my grandmother’s butterscotch pie and the pecan sandies my mother would send me in five-pound Folger’s tins to college. I was very popular in the dorm,” she says. Her love of food has remained constant. Today, she cooks what she calls “yard-to-table” meals with her husband of 30 years, the artist Clay Lohmann. She has also published an art cookbook, Picnic Brownies Make Life Easy, with her Portland, Oregon-based gallery, Upfor.

It’s Green’s deep relationship with food — a source of comfort and connection — that inspired “Last Supper.” In the early ’90s, Green was teaching painting at the University of Oklahoma when she read a newspaper column about executions; at that time, Oklahoma had the highest per capita rate of executions in the country. The column detailed the executions with gruesome particularity, including the inmate’s clothes, the time of death, and their facial features during the killing. Also included was a menu of what the inmate requested as his last meal. Green cut out the story and saved it. “The meals made it real to me,” she says. “It humanized death row for me.”

Brian Price, a former chef who prepared 218 final meals in Texas, also explored the role of the last meal in his 2004 book Meals to Die For. “When I was preparing Kenneth Gentry’s last meal,” he writes of the inmate executed in 1997, “I found myself trying to get into the mind of the man who would request butter beans for his last supper. I began to picture him as a child, sitting at the dinner table with his siblings as their mother spooned out a big helping of the buttery leguminous seeds to each of her children.”

Inspired by the article, Green began to study the death penalty and its deep flaws — its economic cost (the death penalty is much more expensive than life without parole); the racial bias with which it is applied; and the many times it has resulted in wrongful executions.

In 2000, when Green became professor of art at Oregon State University, she turned her meditations on the death penalty into art; choosing plates, fittingly, as her canvas for scenes of final meals painted in blue and white, kiln-fired to permanence. She has already completed 800 plates, but she plans to continue to paint 50 plates a year until the death penalty is abolished.

With nearly 20 years of painting final meals before death behind her, Green is turning to food again, this time to humanize the tortured plight of those wrongfully convicted. The idea was inspired by a Q&A with exonerees, hosted by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern’s Block Museum, which put up her “Last Supper” show. There she met Bunch and learned about her case. “She buried her child, and was wrongfully convicted for his murder,” Green says. “I spent a long time thinking about how that affects you.”

For these exonerees, the wrongful deprivation of liberty is compounded by the inhumane conditions of prison and its “menu.” When Walter McMillan, the Alabama death row inmate who was exonerated and became the subject of the bestselling book Just Mercy, learned his innocence was finally proven, he quickly told his lawyer Bryan Stevenson: “Man, I want some good food. I ain’t had no real good food in so long that I can’t even remember what it tastes like.”

Some inmates starve while others suffer through meals that are rotten and unsavory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that correctional inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a food-related illness than the general population. Fresh fruit is the equivalent of a unicorn. “What an incredible deprivation,” Sommervold says. “That we do this to prisoners, much less individuals who should not be in prison in the first place, is to expose the humanity of these individuals and the unbelievable inhumanity of the system.”

Green hopes to paint 20 exonerees’ first meals this year. With thousands of exonerees on the National Registry, she has no shortage of subjects. Why so many wrongful convictions? What makes the holes in our criminal justice system so gaping that innocents fall through? “When you have so many innocent people going to prison, it is more often than not because of multiple factors — bad eyewitness IDs, and false confessions, coupled with some level of misconduct on part of the state — all present in one case,” says Sommervold.

Most of what goes wrong in criminal cases starts with the prosecution’s desperation to get a conviction. Many prosecutors hide exculpatory evidence, also known as Brady material, which they are required to turn over to the defense. “Defense lawyers don’t have the resources that prosecutors have, and often times it is the prosecution that finds a witness who says, ‘No, he didn’t do it,’ and they don’t turn it over, or they wait until it’s too late. And the defense may not find it. It is so common,” says Ursula Bentele, former legal aid lawyer and professor emerita at Brooklyn Law School, where she ran its Capital Defender and Federal Habeas Clinic for 35 years.

Race plays a part in who gets indicted in the first place. According to a study by the National Registry of Exonerations, black people are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder. “More often than not wrongful convictions befall those have no resources in communities that are overpoliced — communities of color,” says Sommervold. “It is rare to find an upper middle class white person on death row or on the registry of exonerated.”

And other factors come into play as well, including unreliable witnesses and false eyewitness identifications. “When justice depends on people that poses a huge problem,” says Bentele. “People think that they can ID a person but they are often wrong, especially in cases of cross-race identification.” Compounding the problem is an underfunded public defense system; defendants who must rely on this system are at a critical disadvantage. The wrongful convictions pile up.

Green’s next painting will be about Jason Strong, who spent 15 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit. When he was exonerated in 2015, his first meal was at a diner down the road from the prison, with his mom and his lawyers. He ordered a bacon mushroom cheeseburger. While he was waiting for his burger to arrive, he began talking about how he loved oranges as a child and how he hadn’t had one while in prison. His waitress overheard his story and brought him an orange from the kitchen. While Strong made quick work of the burger, he could not eat the orange. He spent 40 minutes just holding it, rolling it around in his hands, before he began to peel it.

“The little things in life mean so much when you’re deprived of them,” he told the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “Out in the world we take them for granted.”

Andrea Strong, founder of the pioneering food blog the Strong Buzz, has been writing about restaurants and food for the past 18 years.
Editor: Daniela Galarza and Erin DeJesus

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