• Old-timers in Huntsville, Texas, like to tell tales of public hangings and lynchings at the turn of the century and to reminisce about how, on execution nights at The Walls state prison, the lights would often flicker and dim across town, a signal that the electric chair on the hill was doing its work yet again. Whether these stories are apocryphal or not, the sentiment in favor of the death penalty remains overwhelming in Huntsville, even though many townspeople are uncomfortable with their community's distinction as the execution capital of the U.S. Last year the state of Texas put 17 murderers to death here -- nearly half the number executed nationwide and the most since Texas resumed executions in 1982.

    The quickening pace and mounting numbers have reduced what often used to be , a spectacle into an almost humdrum event. Today few people in town other than Jack King, the local mortician, even know that an execution has occurred until they read about it the next day, buried on an inside page of the Huntsville Item. When a chubby killer named Richard Beavers got his lethal injection of sodium thiopental last week, the only noteworthy aspect of the event was its timing: late on the night of Easter Sunday. That might have provoked an outcry a few years ago, but a vigil for Beavers outside the penitentiary's tall brick walls drew only four candle-carrying participants. At the local Dairy Queen one block away, oblivious teenagers slurped sodas as the hour approached. "People don't give executions a second thought anymore," said manager Irene Cassidy. "They've become the norm."

    Of course, lethal injection, in use here since 1982, is an antiseptic procedure. It lacks the drama of electrocuting someone. One of the region's biggest tourist draws is Old Sparky, the original death chair, which sits behind glass at the Texas Prison Museum four blocks from the Big House. Visitors from around the world come to gawk and marvel at the gleaming oak contraption where 361 killers met their fate from 1924 to 1964.

    In the death house, Beavers, who had waived his appeals and insisted that he wanted to die for the 1986 abduction and shooting of a Houston restaurant manager and the wounding of his wife, devoured a final meal of French toast, sausage, eggs, French fries and six brownies. Then he was led into the baby- blue death chamber and spread-eagled on a gray gurney. He was tied down with white leather straps and ace bandages. As a dozen state officials and reporters watched, Wayne Scott, the prison system's deputy operations chief, appeared in a doorway and intoned, "Warden, you may proceed." A microphone was lowered and the condemned man offered a brief prayer as his last statement. Then the executioner, hidden behind a one-way mirror, released the deadly chemicals through two plastic tubes into the convict's forearms. In 30 seconds, Beavers grunted, coughed and lost consciousness. Six minutes later, Dr. Darryl Wells, a local emergency-room physician, stepped forward to pronounce him dead. As the witnesses were whisked off, morticians loaded the body into a black Astro van and carted it away into the night for cremation.