When I moved back this year to Huntsville, Texas, my childhood home, only one small cloud shaded my anticipation of warmer weather, a longer growing season, and waking up to mockingbirds calling through the morning mists. Though it has grown a good bit since I lived here as a child, my hometown has remained verdant, well kept, and user friendly. Live oaks still arch the walks of the state university. Redbuds, jonquils, and bluebonnets paint the early spring hillsides. The crime rate is low and church attendance high. Huntsville's public-spirited citizens volunteer to teach literacy classes, sort used clothing for Good Shepherd Mission, and serve as docents for the historical museum.

Such manifest virtues got Huntsville named the most desirable place to live in Texas on a recent survey of the nation's best small cities. But the compilers failed to mention the distinction that darkens my hometown's history: Huntsville is also the execution capital of the nation.

If you drive just two blocks east of the courthouse square, past the auto-parts store, the shop advertising Perfect Nails, and the First Baptist Church, you come to The Walls, the prison where the state of Texas last year put to death 37 men—a number that equals the combined executions in all the other states. Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban on capital punishment, one-third of all the nation's executions have taken place in this small town. At this moment, 446 people wait on Death Row at the Ellis Unit, a few miles outside the city limits.

Huntsville citizens are not proud of this distinction. In fact, it makes them—or I should say us—downright uncomfortable, especially since the executions, which used to be done in the dead of night, are now performed at six in the evening, right about the time most of us are sitting down to our suppers. And "performed" became the operative word last February at the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who, 14 years earlier, had taken a pickax and, with a friend, hacked the life out of two people. A week before her sentence was scheduled to be carried out, camera crews, international news teams, Amnesty International representatives, and victims'-rights advocates crowded our town to chronicle the event. Every motel room was booked, the town's restaurants were packed, the Enterprise car rental office overwhelmed. Even the stylist who did Bianca Jagger's hair for the occasion got interviewed by the press.

No one denies that the town is economically dependent on the prison system—or as it is now called, the Department of Criminal Justice. Crime pays in Huntsville—the salaries of our six prisons' 7,000 employees, to be specific. Gray TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) uniforms show up everywhere—shopping at Kroger, picking up children at daycare centers, eating at fast-food restaurants. If Texas felons suddenly reformed or went elsewhere to rob banks or shoot their wives, the Wal-Mart superstore out by the Interstate would have to shut its automatic doors.

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Yet incarcerating criminals is not quite the same as executing them, especially when they turn into born-again Christians. Though the local newspaper's informal poll showed most of Huntsville's citizens favored executing Karla Faye, despite her religious conversion and changed life, the citizenry would still have preferred the sentence be carried out elsewhere.

So even as the city's tourism board met to figure out a way to bring good out of this evil, ordinary townsfolk retreated to their homes to wait out the media invasion, the way they would batten down against a hurricane blowing in off the Gulf. Everyone knew that rowdy fraternity boys, drinking beer and waving Rebel flags, would treat the execution like a human fox hunt. Yet even diehard death-penalty advocates shuddered at the bad impression of our town these unseemly shenanigans would make. We expected that the world's media, camped on our small doorstep, would portray Huntsvillians as uniformly sanctioning and collectively responsible for killing this repentant woman.

Huntsville has always been the location for executions in Texas, yet until Karla Faye Tucker's execution we had never felt our imputed guilt quite so keenly. The U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 ruling against capital punishment had given Huntsville a respite from its dark heritage, and even after the death penalty became legal again in 1976, another six years would pass before anyone was actually executed in Texas. That decade-long hiatus temporarily lightened the dark cloud over our town.

But during the past decade, steadily growing numbers of convicted murderers have been making their way to the gurney waiting on the second floor of The Walls. Before the ban on capital punishment, prisoners had met their end strapped down in Old Sparky, the low-tech electric chair now displayed in the Texas Prison Museum on the courthouse square between Rogers Shoe Store and Ernst Jewelers. As a child, I had listened to the local legend telling why these executions were carried out at midnight. Supposedly, the lights dimmed all over town when the switch was thrown. But I never quite understood the point. Was the late hour meant to avoid an inconvenient interruption of services, or to evade an unpleasant reminder of what was happening across town?

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We don't have to worry about execution brownouts nowadays, however. After the right to rid themselves of their worst offenders against peace and safety was restored to the states, Texas initiated a purportedly more humane method of execution—lethal injection. Now the smell of singed feathers no longer pervades the execution chamber. The prisoner's limbs don't jerk, and there's no danger the body will catch fire as one did in Florida last year. The only accouterments are a white-sheeted hospital gurney and a doctor with a syringe containing pancuronium chloride. The process is quick—the chemical takes effect in 18 to 20 seconds—and the experience is certainly easier on the survivors' sensibilities. But I wonder if such medically modeled executions are good for our collective soul? Does this switch in styles show we have grown more humane or merely more fastidious about our own feelings?

My grandfather, who worked as a prison guard during the chain-gang era when a prison was still called a penitentiary, insisted on the justice of the death penalty as retribution. A life for a life. At the same time, he considered executions occasions of high seriousness. He debated the subject with rhetorical passion, but also with a reverential awe that today seems almost antique. To take a human life was to put oneself in the place of God, who only could give it. Though he upheld society's right to exact retribution for capital crimes, he owned that pulling the lever that released the necessary voltage to kill a man might be beyond his personal capacities. And he pitied the man whose job it was.

By that simple confession he early and unwittingly influenced my own attitude toward this thorny subject more than any theologian or legal expert since. Could I throw the switch? It came down to that simple question. As a child, I could feel my skin grow cold when I pondered an answer. However, since coming back to Huntsville, I have yet to hear anyone wonder aloud if he could depress the plunger in the syringe.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the elephant in the living room. The town's Episcopal rector, still considered a newcomer here after four years, decided last year to see for himself what goes on outside The Walls during an execution. He stood in the parking lot across the street from the prison on an evening when the death sentence was served on one of the 37 men last year. Groups for and against the death penalty clotted opposite corners of the parking lot, he reported. Some had come to celebrate, some to accuse. "One side was yelling 'Kill him!' and the other side was yelling 'Murderers!' " he said. "I didn't feel like I belonged on either corner."

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Still, he felt the church should be taking some notice of such a momentous event. Among the town's 31 churches, no congregation had ever met to pray on the day of an execution. However, on February 3 at 5:30 p.m., just as Karla Faye Tucker was being readied for the gurney, some of the members of Saint Stephen's parish, along with a number of other townsfolk, gathered at the church to pray. Television camera crews, getting wind of this new angle, asked to film the service but were turned away. The service was not a demonstration for or against capital punishment. We were there to pray for someone who was dying, for those already dead, for those they left behind.

In my pew that evening, I feel my skin grow cold again the way it did when I listened to my grandfather telling about the man throwing the switch for Old Sparky. I think about the husband of the woman Karla Faye killed. His wheelchair is parked now, facing a plate-glass window through which the state's invited guests view executions. He has told reporters he will relish watching Karla Faye die.

Could I throw
the switch?
It came down
to that simple

A church member who leads weekend prison retreats reads the Old Testament lesson—Genesis 4, the story of Cain. "Sin is crouching at the door. … Am I my brother's keeper? … Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. … My punishment is more than I can bear. … Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him" (NIV).

I recall the slogans on the placards I saw in the parking lot across from The Walls. "Hands off Cain," demand signs on one corner. "Forget the injection, use a pickax," the other side's say.

A man who works as a prison guard reads the New Testament lesson—Luke 23, the thief on the cross. "Are you not the Christ? … we are receiving the due reward for our deeds. … [T]oday you will be with me in Paradise" (RSV).

I think about the brother of the murder victim, a thin, sad man I saw interviewed this afternoon. His sister's death opened a way for him to find peace in Jesus, he told the reporter. Otherwise, he would still harbor the same rage the rest of his family feels. They don't speak to him anymore, he told the reporter. "I understand. I just don't know what they'll do when they wake up a year from now and find the pain is still there."

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The Prayers of the People are led by a retired parole officer. We pray for Karla Faye's sincere contrition and confidence in Jesus Christ, for eternal peace for her victims, for forgiving hearts for their families, for the guards that are preparing Karla Faye for execution, for the chaplains, the warden, the judges, the jury, the attorneys. The board of pardons and paroles, the governor. For the executioners.

And last, we pray "for the people of Huntsville, that we remain distressed and avoid complacency." I find the words sticking in my throat. It was easy to pray for the others. It's harder to pray for ourselves.

In fact, I find the experience both an upper and a downer. Holding a person, rather than an issue, in your mind makes it more painful to picture the scene unfolding on both sides of the plate-glass window at The Walls. Nevertheless, I feel a strangely incongruous surge of joy as we stand and hold hands to sing "Amazing Grace," the default setting these days for expressing the spiritually inexpressible. Where does this joy come from, I wonder? It feels like some kind of victory—not ours, certainly. We are merely witnessing that repentance counts, even when the cost is everything. That forgiveness alters reality.

The next week, however, we discover to our dismay that we have to come back and do it all over again. This time we're praying for Steven Renfro who, on August 25, 1996, according to his confession, took 70 Valium tablets, washed them down with liquor, then dressed in camouflage clothes, blackened his face, and shot his girlfriend, Rhena, and her Aunt Rose, who lived with them in the East Texas town of Marshall. Afterward, armed with four guns, one an assault rifle, and 500 rounds of ammunition, he went to a nearby trailer house and shot George Counts, a man against whom he had a grudge. He fired 150 rounds into the trailer, and when police turned up to check out reports of gunfire, he turned the patrol car "into Swiss cheese," hitting an officer in the shoulder.

The state of Steven Renfro's soul remains a mystery. Unlike Karla Faye, he has granted no interviews from prison, nor has he appeared on television or developed a Web page. We only see video clips of him on the evening news the day he dies. Surrounded by a phalanx of gray uniforms, the prisoner moves in the protracted bob of slow motion along the hall as if they are all—the condemned man and his guards—swimming through the same thick tide of time. His hair is dark, as is the full mustache weighting his grim mouth. His eyes catch the camera only briefly before turning back to focus down the hall where they are leading him.

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As soon as he was taken into custody, Steven Renfro confessed to the arresting officers and has never gone back on that confession. As it turned out, Rick Berry, the district attorney who prosecuted this case, had gone to high school with the accused. Steven Renfro made it easy for his former classmate by assuring the jury at the conclusion of his trial that he deserved to die for his crime. They didn't argue with him. Neither did the judge. In the months that followed, Steven Renfro was adamant that no appeals be filed on his behalf. He wanted the death sentence carried out as soon as possible.

The state of Texas obliged him. It took 14 years to kill Karla Faye Tucker. It took only 10 months to execute Steven Renfro. Karla Faye had thousands of supporters. Steven Renfro had Rick Berry.

After the hearing to set the execution date, the district attorney picked up hamburgers at McDonald's and shared them with the murderer in his office. As they ate, they reminisced about growing up in Marshall, then talked about life and the death penalty. "We had a kind of handshake deal," Rick Berry says, "that we were going to see this thing through."

Twelve hundred demonstrators, both for and against the death penalty, along with two hundred reporters, had poured into Huntsville days in advance of Karla Faye Tucker's execution. The next week, a scant two dozen people showed up less than an hour before Steven Renfro was scheduled to die. Rick Berry was one of them.

Though Steven Renfro had refused to give any interviews from Death Row, Rick Berry, his prosecutor and friend, provided the public some interpretation for his unusual—and some would say misguided—resistance to judicial appeals. According to Berry, Steven Renfro's religious convictions governed those decisions as surely as Karla Faye's conversion guided hers. He saw his execution "as a way to get to heaven," the attorney says. "By voluntarily going ahead and being punished, it's like atonement. He was pretty adamant about this."

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The notion of atonement, of making up for, of balancing moral accounts in some cosmic zero-sum game, has little currency in contemporary Western culture. It's the opposite of filing for bankruptcy. It's like submitting to elective retribution. Even Christians struggle to understand the concept. Most of us find atonement efficacious only when applied to Jesus.

Karla Faye Tucker's supporters, especially evangelicals, based their opposition to her execution on the changes her conversion effected in her. Even inside the prison's walls she was making a positive contribution to society. So why wipe out her potential for doing good? For years the same argument has been made by those who see prison as a means to rehabilitation, a position evangelicals have not always taken. They have tended to agree with Steven Renfro and the Old Testament: criminals must pay with their own lives for the ones they take. Retribution makes sense in a tit-for-tat world. It elevates the value of human life by putting a high price on it. But can one life make up for the three Steven Renfro took? Can anyone work the moral arithmetic required to solve this problem, I wondered. Only a few people came to the service that evening. How do you weigh the mere handful of prayers for Steven Renfro?

Two weeks later, though, the church is full again. It's Ash Wednesday, and the execution scheduled for that evening has been stayed, pending an appeal. Instead of the Litany for an Execution, we are starting our series of Lenten soup suppers and speakers. Tonight the soup is vegetable and the speaker James Brazzil, chaplain at The Walls unit, the man the state of Texas pays to provide spiritual counsel for the people it puts to death.

At supper, I sit across the table from a man in a deep blue shirt who identifies himself as a producer from National Public Radio. He explains he came to Huntsville to do a story on the execution scheduled for that day. "I guess I'll have to leave though," he says, hunkering over his bowl. "I know it sounds callous, but the execution is the story. If it doesn't happen, there's not any story."

Chaplain Brazzil, his reddish hair thinning and his sport coat barely buttoning across his middle, begins by telling several stories. As he speaks, his fair skin flushes peach with fervor. His deft narratives soon put us in the damp palm of his hand. We feel the urgency in these stories that come from the borderland between life and death. He reads us the note Karla Faye wrote in his Bible the day she was executed, the first time he has shared it in public. He also tells of men he has accompanied to the death chamber whose faith he found as authentic as hers.

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From his Bible he pulls another letter, this one written to one of those men by his 16-year-old daughter the week he was executed. In it, she tells her father she thinks about him often, even though she has not seen him since she was two years old. She says she has never really known him and recognizes she will never have that chance now. She tells him she wishes she had the faith he has told her he's been given, but he'll be gone, and no one else has ever spoken to her about Jesus.

The chaplain folds the letter carefully and puts it away. In the morning, he tells us, he will be out at Peckerwood Hill, the graveyard for inmates who die unclaimed in prison. Except for the two bodies he'll be burying and the inmates operating the backhoe, he'll be the only one there.

I glance over at the npr producer who said there is no story without an execution. I wonder if he can feel the weight of the stories filling up this room. Maybe not. Maybe you have to live here in Huntsville.

Virginia Stem Owens is former director of the Milton Center in Wichita, Kansas, and author of Looking for Jesus, forthcoming from Westminster-JohnKnox.

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