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 ...1