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A Saint on Death Row by Thomas Cahill

Posted By David Lida On April 27, 2009 @ 9:46 am In African American,Biography,Non-Fiction Reviews,True Crime | 4 Comments

A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green
by Thomas Cahill
Nan A. Talese, 160 pp.
CLR Rating:

An Unwarranted Canonization

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 two younger brothers. At seven, a Catholic-school priest raped him. At eight, he was dealing drugs on the street. At nine, 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 fifteen, 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 four times as many prisoners as any other state, and beginning with George W. Bush’s 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, two 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 Dominique’s prosecution as a nightmare. Matters were certainly not helped by the fact that, although still in his teens, this was Dominique’s 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 six 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 half his life in jail, was a saint.

On Cahill’s web site [1], 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 Cahill’s 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 two among readers when he casually imagines Dominique as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Secretary General of the U.N.

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 three thousand 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. I’d 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 spared.

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 vindictiveness.”

I believe it is indisputable when Cahill writes about Dominique that, “… the first question an inquiring American should ask is not ‘Did he do it’ but ‘Did he receive a fair trial?’ And the second 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 [2].

***

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 death-penalty cases. His website, Mostly Mexico City, can be found at www.davidlida.com [3].


Article printed from California Literary Review: http://calitreview.com

URL to article: http://calitreview.com/3076/a-saint-on-death-row-by-thomas-cahill/

URLs in this post:

[1] Cahill’s web site: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/cahill/

[2] Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/

[3] www.davidlida.com: http://davidlida.com/?page_id=4