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Life and death in a Texas prison town Capital punishment is part of the routine in 'Death capital'


HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- Like everything else in this state, Christmas decorations are big. Just down the highway in Houston, a 64-display, drive-through light show is said to be the world's largest. Even in a small town like Lufkin to the northeast, an entire city block explodes in megawatt, wall-to-wall white lights.

Here, the modest downtown gets into the spirit as well. A group of men spent a recent morning climbing up and down ladders to decorate the city's most distinctive building with gaily painted signs wishing all the happiest of holidays.

That the men are inmates and the building they're decorating is the prison where the bulk of the nation's executions takes place is something that barely rates comment here. The prison and its frequent executions are so entrenched in everyday life that they've achieved the white noise of near invisibility.

To the rest of the world, though, Huntsville increasingly represents the heart of the darkness that continues to surround the death penalty 22 years after the Supreme Court restored it. The pace of executions in the U.S. overall and Texas inparticular has picked up dramatically in recent years, throwing a spotlight on this small city where nearly one-third of the country's death penalties have been carried out.

"We're known as the death capital of the world, unfortunately," John Strickland, owner of a downtown restaurant, said ruefully of Huntsville.

On Friday, the number of executions in the U.S. since capital punishment was reinstated reached 500 when a man who had murdered an elderly couple was put to death by lethal injection in South Carolina.

In states such as Maryland, where the death penalty is rarely carried out, executions still have some shock value and generate blanket media coverage.

In Texas, though, it takes extraordinary circumstances to pique widespread interest -- the February execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the ax-murderer who became the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War, or the 11th-hour stay of execution in early December that spared the life of a Canadian citizen whose case had drawn outrage among diplomatic officials.

More commonly, executions come and go with little attention beyond a prison staff carrying out its careful, clinical procedures and a group of anti-death penalty protesters making their predictable stand outside "The Walls," as the two-block prison complex is called for it massive brick facades.

"It's like living on a military base that has nuclear weapons. You just don't think about it on a daily basis," said James Marquart, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

Still, he says the executions hover like "a kind of cloud" over the city. For all the stereotypes of big-talking, law-and-order Texans proudly leading the nation in executions, the death penalty is a real rather than theoretical event here and opinions about it can be more nuanced than expected.

Circus atmosphere

Strickland, whose Cafe Texan is two blocks from the prison, said he generally supports the death penalty but believes it should be carried out only against the most outrageous, cold-blooded murderers. The circus atmosphere generated by some executions has begun to bother him.

"With Karla Faye Tucker, everyone was saying, 'Oh, it brought you tons of business,' " said Strickland, who bought the 72-year-old restaurant in 1996. "We did have a 10, 15 percent increase in business, but afterward I decided if we ever have another major execution I'll close for the day rather than take the money. I don't feel good about profiting from someone else's misfortune."

As the only sit-down restaurant downtown, Cafe Texan plays host to locals and visiting media alike.

The 149-year-old Walls, Texas' oldest state penitentiary, seems like a benign neighbor. Pink and red roses bloom outside its main entrance, and, like good neighbors, inmates can be seen maintaining the property.

While death row inmates are housed about 12 miles northeast in a facility memorialized in Steve Earle's mournful song, "Ellis Unit One," they are brought to Walls for execution.

The Death House, as the area where the executions take place is called, is located in the northeast corner of the complex. In 1924, Texas began conducting all executions here.

Even without executions, Huntsville would be notable for its concentration of prisons: In addition to Walls, seven prisons are located in or near the city, housing a total of more than 7,400 inmates. They are counted in the city's population, which is about 29,000. On the other side of the law, Huntsville is also home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which has about 6,700 employees in the area.

The second largest presence in Huntsville is Sam Houston State University, but it, too, has a link to the prison industry: The nation's largest criminal justice educational facility is located here, and inmate labor was used to construct a 200,000-square-foot complex for it.

"It's just something that's there, we have no control over it," Strickland said of the local prison industry. "It's kind of like Detroit with its auto production and the pollution it produces."

Controversial penalty

To those opposed to the death penalty, Huntsville symbolizes much of what is wrong with the system: The ultimate punishment is meted out in a highly irregular manner across the country. A large state like California, for example, has put to death only five convicts since 1976, while a relatively small state like Louisiana has executed 24.

"In Texas, they generally do not put much into the legal defense of death-penalty cases," said Richard Dieter, director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. "There's no statewide public defenders network, and the representation is very uneven. In Texas, you're more likely to end up on death row, and your case is more likely to be reaffirmed all along the line."

While more than 70 percent of Americans are said to support the death penalty, that figure is believed to be even higher in the Huntsville area.

Huntsville residents have had to confront their feelings about executions, if only because the international news media increasingly has descended on the city to report on what many foreigners consider an appalling practice. (The United States and Japan are the only major democracies with capital punishment.)

Mary McClain recalled a French reporter who badgered her until she admitted she favored capital punishment.

"Why should I be surprised," she quoted the reporter as telling her, "since all you Texans are heathens.

"I felt like saying, 'Honey, there's the door and you can just walk out of it,' " she said. "I don't go to France and tell you how to run your business."

Prison museum

McClain, a retired educator, is a volunteer at the Texas Prison Museum, a creepy collection of artifacts ranging from a no longer used electric chair to scary contraband confiscated from inmates over the years to Prisoner No. 321's handwritten instructions for his final meal: "1 small steak (tender, no bone, no fat, cooked rare-medium), order of french fried potatoes (large order), order of butter beans (small order), order of brown grease gravey (medium order). This is my last meal, and damn it, I want it served hot on however many plates and bowls it takes to keep from mixing any of it up together."

McClain gives a group of visiting students a scared-straight sort of talk, showing them the replica of a cell and asking them to imagine spending years in there with a roommate they might hate and no air conditioning.

Behind the counter, there are T-shirts -- "I did time in Huntsville" -- Ellis Unit death row caps and other souvenirs for sale. The message is hard to discern: Just how does Huntsville feel about its role in the capital punishment debate?

"It's not anything to be ashamed of," McClain said, "but you don't go about bragging about it."

Huntsville, of course, is called to answer for more than its share of responsibility for the executions carried out in its midst.

After witnessing more than 100 executions over eight years, radio reporter Wayne Sorge said he's only seen two that involved a crime in Huntsville. "And the first one was for a crime that took place inside a prison," he said.

"More often than not, it's a jury in Houston that made the decision. It's people in Houston who elect the judges and the prosecutors. Everything, from the decision to commit the crime to the jury that sentences someone to die is from Houston, and then a contingency of [anti-death penalty activists] stationed in Houston comes here and starts screaming about it."

Every person different

Sorge, who has witnessed executions for the past eight years as a stringer for United Press International, said he tries not to let the experience become routine. "Every case is different, every person is different," he said.

Some cases get to him more than others: There was the convict who seemed mentally deficient, not really cognizant of what was going on, and who had been horribly abused as a child, Sorge said. There are the convicts whom he has previously interviewed on death row.

And then there is the doctor who pronounces the executed person dead.

"He's the same doctor in the emergency room at our hospital here," Sorge said. "I sometimes wonder, what if I have a traffic accident and I'm brought there and I see him over me."

Huntsville's relationship to its prisons is a complicated and oddly intimate one. Seemingly everyone works for or is related to someone who works for the prison system. People talk about growing up "on" the units as the children of guards or medical personnel or other on-site employees, and having inmates regularly in their homes as housekeepers.

Marquart said there is "no simple answer" to why Texas has so many inmates on death row -- about 435 -- and so many executions compared to the rest of the country. Taking a tough stance on crime is part of the state's cultural tradition, he said. "You cross the line," he said, "you pay the price."

For many in Huntsville, the prisons are a paycheck, not a political issue.

'Only a job'

"It's the only job around here," said J. B. Barreda, 24, a Sam Houston student who works as a guard on death row.

He's known some prisoners who have been executed, and knows others who someday may be. Some are "model prisoners, all 'Yes, sir, no sir.' " Barreda has to remind himself why they are on death row: They are convicted murderers.

"I'm not the judge or the jury, I'm just the baby sitter," he said. "I just do it as a job."

Pub Date: 12/23/98

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