A dozen raw oysters. Just once before he died, James Henry wanted to give oysters a try. He wiped the plate clean and the warden wondered if he wanted more. No thanks, said the prisoner, I've had enough. Henry went to the electric chair, no longer curious.

Another fellow, less inclined to experimentation, downed a quart of chocolate milk, then faced electrocution, a big wad of bubble gum in his mouth.Some doomed inmates want nothing more than orange juice or plain tortillas or, in the case of 28-year-old Jeffrey Barney, a resident of the Texas death row for four years, two boxes of Frosted Flakes and one pint of milk.

But of all the condemned criminals with comestible eccentricities none certainly can top - at least in sheer volume - Aubrey Adams Jr., a plumpish 31-year-old killer in Florida. Before he died last May, Adams ordered: one pound of popcorn shrimp, one pound of medium-size shrimp, one pound of jumbo shrimp (battered and fried); one loaf of garlic bread; french fries; pecan pie; pecan ice cream; iced tea.

Ate most of it, too.

"Guess he hadn't had seafood in a while," says a wry Paula Tully of the Florida Department of Corrections.

On par with the time-honored ritual of giving the condemned a blindfold and a cigarette, final meals have evolved as a peculiar tradition. A ceremonial gesture - but only a gesture - last meals are regarded by some as a benevolent courtesy, but to others the quirky custom reeks of hypocrisy.

"It's primarily in order to make the people who are going to do the execution feel they are nice people," says Dr. Donald Dushkind, a San Francisco psychologist and sociologist. "They are showing compassion and relieving themselves of any guilt.

"It is an absurdity. But it looks nice in the newspaper that we're not barbarians, that we let a guy have a good last meal before killing him. . . . Most likely he is either not going to eat it or he will not enjoy it."

Convicted killer Robert Alton Harris, who was slated on Tuesday to be the first person executed in California in 23 years before a judge granted a stay on Friday, has not made known his final dinner preferences.

"I don't think he's contemplating his meal yet. He's focusing on other things," says San Quentin spokesman Lt. Cal White.

Contrary to most notions that final repasts are limited only by the diner's imagination, Harris, 37, who murdered two San Diego teenage boys in 1978, would have to order his meal from the prison menu. That means no take-out. The food must be cooked at San Quentin.

"He can have anything within reason," White says. "If the guy wanted five pounds of caviar, that's not reasonable."

Other states have imposed the same rule. Alabama instituted the rule in 1983 after the patience of prison officials was tested when inmate John Evans ordered a shrimp dinner from the only restaurant in Atmore, site of the electric chair.

Officials gave him the shrimp, but nowadays all final meals are cooked by the prison kitchen. Three of six convicts electrocuted since the new rule wanted no meal at all.

"Maybe that's why they declined," ponders prison spokeswoman Debbie Herbert.

Some chefs bend over backward to make prison fare more palatable. One conscientious Florida cook, knowing that his diner would be forced to eat his steak with a plastic spoon - other utensils pose a security risk - diced the meat, then artfully rearranged it to resemble an intact steak.

As anyone for whom a trip to the dentist is enough to dull taste buds can surely appreciate, some condemned inmates prefer to greet the next world on an empty stomach.

The notorious Ted Bundy, who was suspected in as many as 36 slayings, submitted no meal request on his January 1989 execution day. Prison guards brought him a dinner anyway of steak and eggs, potatoes and pie, but he refused a single bite.

Others request a minimalist meal.

"Charles Rumbaugh in Texas wanted only a flour tortilla and water," says California researcher David Tomsovic, an expert on capital punishment lore. "He said he didn't need any more than that. He was a philosophical type of person."

But many facing final judgment want a six-course banquet, with selections running the gamut from steaks to enchiladas to cheeseburgers, the latter probably the most universally popular item.

"To me and you it doesn't sound like a big deal, but if you've been in prison for 20 years, a McDonald's burger may seem like a real good meal," says Georgia prisons spokeswoman Lisa Phillips.

In Texas, guards are still shaking their heads over their most peculiar last-meal request two years ago. One inmate, who claimed to practice voodoo, wanted to dine on dirt.

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(Additional information)

What a few criminals are before execution

Ted Bundy (killed a 12-year-old girl, suspected in deaths of numerous other women; executed in Florida in January 1989): Was offered a "standard" execution-day breakfast: steak, eggs, potatoes, toast, milk, coffee, juice, butter and jelly. He refused.

Gary Gilmore (killed a Utah service station attendant and a motel manager on consecutive days; executed Jan. 17, 1977): Last breakfast of eggs, hamburger, potatoes and coffee.

Aaron Mitchell (last man executed in California, 1967): Last meal of fried chicken, bread and butter, milk.

Caryl Chessman (rapist, robber and kidnapper, one of the most famous inmates on San Quentin's death row; executed in 1960): Last breakfast - fruit compote, bran flakes, omelet with bacon, French toast with maple syrup, toast, Coke and milk. Last lunch - ice cream, coffee. Last dinner: sandwich and Coke.

Burton Abbott (killed a 14-year-old California schoolgirl; executed March 15, 1957): Sent an explicit last-meal note to San Quentin's warden requesting "French fried butterfly jumbo prawns (with cocktail sauce NOT tartar sauce); ravioli (one order); tossed green salad (composed primarily of romaine lettuce) with vinegar-and-oil dressing; chocolate cake." He also asked for "a package of Salem cigarettes (unobtainable at canteen) the cost of which might be deducted from my canteen account."

Barbara Graham (most celebrated "moll" of her day, a convicted killer regarded as "prettiest girl ever to die" in the San Quentin gas chamber; executed June 3, 1955): Night before execution drank only a milkshake; ordered a chocolate sundae for breakfast. Two of her cohorts were also executed: Emmett Perkins ate a last meal of pie and milk while Jack Santo ate a last dinner of avocado salad, fried chicken, coffee and two pieces of pie and a final breakfast of orange juice, pears, toast and coffee.

Juanita "Duchess" Spinelli (convicted of murder, she was the first woman to be executed at San Quentin, in 1941): Turkey dinner followed by a midnight hamburger.