A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green — by Thomas Cahill
Some might say that Dominique Green was born under a bad sign. Certainly
he had harder luck than most people in the U.S. could possibly imagine.
His mother described by author Thomas Cahill in A Saint on Death Row as
"a mother from hell" was an alcoholic and a sometime prostitute who
exercised her trade in front of Dominique and his 2 younger brothers. At
7, a Catholic-school priest raped him. At 8, he was dealing drugs on the
street. At 9, his father an addict gave him a gun to protect himself. It
is not clear whether the armor was most needed on the street or at home,
where his mother had taken to burning his hands over a gas stove as
punishment. By the age of 15, he had been raped repeatedly in juvenile
detention. Born Dominic, he changed his name to Dominique, perhaps hoping
that the adjustment to his tag might signify a transformation of his life.
Regrettably, it didn't.
Dominique's worst luck was to have been born in Houston, Texas, the
principal city of Harris County. Since 1976, Texas has executed more than
4 times as many prisoners as any other state, and beginning with George W.
Bushs term as governor, it became the death penalty capital of the
country. Harris County has committed more people to death than any other
in Texas they're slap-happy about vengeance.
It is almost inevitable that someone with a background such as Dominique's
will go to jail soon after reaching adulthood. In his case, at the age of
18 in 1992, it was due to a botched robbery outside a convenience store.
The victim, Andrew Lastrapes, was shot to death after pulling a knife in
self-defense. Along with Dominique, 2 other black youths were arrested.
The lone white boy in their group made a deal with the district attorney,
and after giving a statement, was set free. Fingered by his accomplices as
the shooter, Dominique was the only one of the group to be charged with
capital murder, and hence eligible for the death penalty.
In his book, Cahill describes Dominiques prosecution as a nightmare.
Matters were certainly not helped by the fact that, although still in his
teens, this was Dominiques fourth arrest. His court-appointed lawyer was
inexperienced and had only tangentially assisted in one other
death-penalty case. As an "expert witness," the lawyer hired a
psychologist who believed that blacks and Latinos were more likely to be
violent than whites. Although he kept this opinion to himself on the
stand, he did offer his assurance to the jury that Dominique would be a
danger to society if he were allowed to live. Dominique's own mother slept
through much of the trial, but remained awake long enough to tell the jury
that she believed her flesh and blood to be capable of the crime.
Dominique made mistakes of his own. He refused to point fingers at his
cohorts, although he did insist during the trial and for the subsequent
twelve years of his life that if the prosecution would obtain the
videotape from the convenience store they would see he was not guilty of
murder. (In all those years, they never did.) He certainly did himself no
good when, in a letter he sent to a friend from jail, he referred to
himself as a "trigga happy nigga." Although his defense team explained it
was an ironic quotation of hip-hop lyrics by a Houston group called the
Geto Boys, the assertion was not of the sort to arouse empathy among a
Harris County prosecutor. Or for that matter a Houston jury (which, in the
trial of Dominique, was composed entirely of white people).
Thomas Cahill, the author of A Saint on Death Row, never mentions it in
his book, but for 6 years in the 1990s, he was the Director of Religious
Publishing at Doubleday. After leaving that job, he went on to write such
best-selling titles as How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the
Jews, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages, which have collectively sold
millions of copies. Perhaps as a result of his interest in religion, A
Saint on Death Row, which purports to tell Dominique Green's story, hinges
on the conceit inherent in the title that the young man, who was given a
lethal injection in 2004 at the age of 30, after spending nearly 1/2 his
life in jail, was a saint.
On Cahill's web site, you can see a video of Dominique Green. He appears
to be a sweet-faced young man, articulate and charming, with a notable,
visible inner strength. Given the evidence in Cahills book, it seems
unlikely to me that Green would have considered himself a saint, although
the author struggles mightily to convince us. You can see where Cahill is
going from the first overwrought pages of the book, when he describes a
visit with Dominique in jail. I wondered whether it even occurred to
Cahill that it might be patronizing to write that a young black man had
"the dignity of a Benin bronze," or whether it might raise an eyebrow or 2
among readers when he casually imagines Dominique as Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Secretary General of
In a similarly breathless fashion, Cahill continues to mount his evidence
petitioning Dominique for canonization. He developed convincing writing
skills in prison. He organized a football pool among the death row
prisoners. He put together a manuscript of their testimonies. He studied
law for his own case and offered advice to others. He helped an inmate get
a hot pot for cooking. He wore a rosary with 101 beads, each representing
a prisoner who had been put to death while the years passed on death row.
The sons of Lastrapes, the murder victim, visited Dominique in jail and
publicly pleaded that he be spared from execution. When his death appeared
inevitable, he gave the brothers his copy of An African Prayer Book,
autographed by its author, Archbishop Desmond Tutu one of the volumes
that Cahill had published during his tenure at Doubleday. (Cahill was even
able to pull some strings and arrange for Tutu to visit Dominique in jail
alas, to no benefit in the prisoner's case.) The National Catholic
Reporter published an essay by Dominique, and before he was put to death,
he gave the money he earned to the Lastrapes brothers.
Much of this is commendable, stirring, even heartbreaking. But does any of
it qualify him for sainthood? Throughout the book I had the uncomfortable
feeling that it was hardly about Dominique at all, who remains an elusive
and sketchy figure to the end. Between the lines it strikes me that the
book is about Cahill, and what a marvelous, compassionate and loving man
he believes himself to be for writing about Dominique this way.
There are more than 3000 people on death row in the United States today.
Perhaps none of them are saints, although I would hardly presume to be the
one to make that judgment. Probably each of them, in one way or another,
is deserving of our sympathy. In all probability, on a rational basis none
of them deserves to be put to death.
In his quest to convince us of Dominique's sainthood, I believe that
Cahill entirely misses the point. If I were facing the death penalty, I
certainly wouldn't want anyone as smooth-talking and hyperbolic as Cahill
to be my attorney. I would hardly want a lawyer to try to convince a jury
that I was a saint. Id prefer them to simply see me as an innocent man.
Failing that, if they found me guilty, I would like them to believe that I
was nonetheless deserving of their sympathy and that my life should be
It is only toward the end of the book that Cahill hints at what I believe
are the important issues of the death penalty. In a press conference after
his visit with Dominique, Bishop Tutu says, "You are a very generous
people, Americans, and it is very difficult to square with your remarkable
I believe it is indisputable when Cahill writes about Dominique that, "
the 1st question an inquiring American should ask is not 'Did he do it'
but 'Did he receive a fair trial?' And the 2nd question is like it: 'Were
his subsequent encounters with the law fair?' To both these questions the
answer must be a resounding no."
Sadly, this is true in the case of poor Dominique Green, who deserves to
be remembered with respect and compassion, pity and comprehension, even if
he wasn't a saint. Worse still, the lack of justice and fairness is true
for the cases of myriad death penalty defendants, who are most often black
and with no access to skilled lawyers. Regardless of whether they read
Cahill's book, those interested in the topic would do well to visit the
web site of the Death Penalty Information Center.
(source: California LIeterary Review—-David Lida is the author of First
Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century. As a
mitigation specialist, he conducts investigations for defense attorneys on
In a reversal, Justice Stevens calls the death penalty
'anachronistic'—-Part of the Supreme Court majority that reinstated
capital punishment in the U.S. in 1976, he says it no longer serves any
The nation's longest-serving Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens, on
Wednesday declared his formal opposition to capital punishment.
Stevens, 87, was part of the court majority that reinstated the death
penalty in America in 1976. But in a concurring opinion to Wednesday's
ruling that Kentucky's use of lethal injection is constitutional, Stevens
wrote that the death penalty no longer served a legitimate social
function. He is the 1st justice to openly oppose capital punishment since
Harry Blackmun in 1994.
His words came as some comfort to death penalty opponents on a day when
they suffered a setback at the hands of the justices. Within hours of the
7-2 ruling, Virginia and Florida announced their intention to lift a
moratorium on executions, and several other states were expected to follow
suit. In California, executions could begin again by the end of the year.
But Elisabeth Semel, a law professor and director of the Death Penalty
Clinic at UC Berkeley who helped bring the challenge to Kentucky's
lethal-injection procedures, said the court's opinion made it clear that
states can be forced to institute alternative lethal-injection procedures
if they can be proven to alleviate a substantial risk of severe pain to
That may have been one reason that Stevens, in a sense, threw up his hands
and said "enough" even as he concurred with the majority in the Kentucky
case. Stevens wrote that when the court agreed to hear the Kentucky
challenge, he "assumed that our decision would bring the debate about
lethal injection as a method of execution to a close. It now seems clear
that it will not."
Then he went further, saying the death penalty was no longer meeting any
of the societal aims the court laid out when it reinstated the sanction in
1976 after a 4-year pause. "State-sanctioned killing," he said, is
becoming "more and more anachronistic."
The Chicago native, who was named to the court by President Ford in 1975,
wrote that modern, lengthy prison sentences had achieved the goal of
preventing the offender from committing further crimes and said that
researchers had yet to prove to his satisfaction that the death penalty
deterred others from committing crimes.
That left retribution as the sole rationale for capital punishment, and
there Stevens found a paradox. Noting that the court is now working to
make executions as painless as possible, he wrote: "By requiring that an
execution be relatively painless, we necessarily protect the inmate from
enduring any punishment that is comparable to the suffering inflicted on
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a special concurrence to criticize Stevens,
saying that his reversal on the issue was "astounding" and that he was
substituting his own views for those of state legislatures elected by the
"It is Justice Stevens' experience that reigns over all," he wrote
Notwithstanding Stevens' stance, states were gearing up to put a pair of
killers to death. Florida officials said that the high court's decision
paved the way for the execution of Mark Dean Schwab, convicted of raping
and killing an 11-year-old boy in 1991.
And in Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine cleared the way for the execution of
Edward Bell, who killed a police officer in 1999. His execution was
scheduled for April 8, but Kaine had postponed it until July in advance of
the Supreme Court ruling.
(source: Los Angeles Times)