Canon Fodder

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Dominic Jerome (“Dominique”) Green had the kind of childhood you wouldn’t wish on anyone and an adulthood that, while truncated, anyone would admire. Green was born and raised in Houston by drug-addicted parents. His mother, a diagnosed schizophrenic, abused Dominique and his two brothers horribly and often. A Catholic priest raped 7-year-old Dominique at school, and he fell prey to more sexual abusers as an inmate in the state juvenile detention system. Green turned to drug dealing at age 15, and by 18 he had joined a criminal gang that robbed people at gunpoint.

According to Harris County prosecutors, Green and three other members of the gang robbed, shot and killed Andrew Lastrapes Jr., a Houston truck driver, in October 1994. Police apprehended Green and another of the men in a stolen car four days after the murder and found a gun in its backseat. Questionable ballistics tests would later indicate the weapon had killed Lastrapes. It was Green’s fourth arrest. Investigators found fingerprints on the murder weapon, but they belonged to none of the four men. Regardless, prosecutors fingered Green as the triggerman. In exchange for their testimony in Green’s trial, prosecutors also dropped murder charges against two other African-American men they identified as having participated in the crime. Incredibly, the fourth member of the group, a white man named Patrick Haddix, was never indicted, though he admitted in a written statement and subsequent testimony that he had participated in the robbery and shared its proceeds. Prosecutors produced no other witnesses.

In theory, Texas’ notorious “law of parties” allowed the prosecutors to charge all four men with capital murder. (The law of parties practically eliminates distinctions between murderers and accomplices, relieving prosecutors from having to prove that capital murder defendants intended to commit the crime—or even that they participated in the murder. The “Kenneth Foster Jr. Act,” which would amend the law, passed the Texas House of Representatives this session but died in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.)

Prosecutors charged only Green, though they lacked physical evidence pointing to his guilt. Their only witnesses were victims of the gang’s other stickups and Green’s plea-bargaining co-conspirators—men with incentive to obscure their own involvement in the crime. Green’s court-appointed attorney was an admitted heavy drinker whose only previous capital case was an infamous 1992 “sleeping lawyer” trial. Of the droopy-eyed defense for accused murderer George McFarland in that case, Judge Doug Shaver—who also presided over Green’s trial—said, “The Constitution says everyone’s entitled to the lawyer of their choice. … The Constitution doesn’t say the lawyer has to be awake.”

Bernatte Luckett Lastrapes was among those who could not believe her eyes as the case against Green unfolded. According to author Thomas Cahill, the murder victim’s widow “began to wonder if this was really a trial at all or rather some kind of bizarrely predictable ritual with a predetermined outcome.” Green admitted his part in the robbery but vehemently denied having shot Lastrapes. Nonetheless, a Harris County jury—all-white save an Asian-American—found Green guilty. Against all conceivable judgment, his defense team called Green’s mentally ill mother as a character witness in the trial’s sentencing phase. She recommended that the court impose the death penalty, and the court complied.

Green went to Death Row on July 14, 1993, and remained there until the state of Texas took his life, ostensibly to protect you and me, on Oct. 26, 2004. Readers will find it difficult to argue with Cahill’s conclusion that “Dominique never had a fair shot; he never even had a chance. He was convicted and executed by a system that has no regard for fairness and no regard for human life.”

Cahill is a classics scholar and popular historian, best known for his “Hinges of History” series, including the books How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews. He splits his time between Manhattan and Europe, and his social circle is such that he is able to call in favors from Green’s spiritual and intellectual hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and dedicate this book to the memory of his friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He seems an unlikely biographer, much less champion, of a black former drug dealer on Texas’ Death Row, but that’s what he became after meeting Green in 2003.

Green had reached out from behind bars to members of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a group of lay Catholics whose home basilica is near Cahill’s second home, an apartment in Rome. The community introduced Cahill to Sheila Murphy, a retired Chicago judge who served as a volunteer attorney for Green during the appeals process. Murphy introduced Cahill to Green.

Cahill catalogs every disgraceful aspect of Green’s experience with the justice system. His larger mission, though, is to examine the changes Green underwent after receiving his death sentence—his transformation from a troubled teenager into what Cahill calls “a fully achieved human being.” He does so by exploring the influence Green had on others, including Cahill. For whatever reason, Green treated his death sentence as an opportunity to grow, to become better educated, to form deeper human bonds, to act as a resource for others.

Fellow prisoners remembered Green as a mentor and builder of community against tremendous odds, as a source of hope and peace, as the man who introduced Tutu’s writings on forgiveness and reconciliation to Death Row. Lastrapes’ sons came to admire Green as an elder-brother figure. With their mother, they petitioned to have Green’s sentence reduced to life in prison and protested the inequities of which Green was a victim and symbol. Literally hundreds of members of the Community of Sant’Egidio and activists throughout the world came to consider Green a trusted friend and worked to save his life.

I’d initially thought that Cahill’s labeling of Green as a saint was metaphorical, a way of comparing him to the early Christian ascetics who separated themselves from civilization to seek deeper meaning in solitude. Not so. He means literally to canonize the man. In Cahill’s telling, confinement didn’t merely transform Green; Death Row transfigured him. Although Cahill was not present for Green’s execution, he describes the scene in detail using the symbolism of crucifixion.

This is a risky proposition. What effect will it have to portray a Texas Death Row prisoner as a Christ figure? Will the book encourage followers of history’s most notable death penalty victim to work for its abolition, or will they reject the comparison of a black criminal to their heavenly savior with the jerk of a knee? Cahill hopes for the former; in the book’s appendix he directs readers to resources aimed at protecting children, reforming the American criminal justice system, and ending the death penalty.

But as Cahill well knows, capital punishment will remain on the books in Texas until a critical mass of voters, including politically conservative Christians, organize to end it. Cahill doesn’t offer much reason to be optimistic that this will occur. He points out that the regionally dominant Southern Baptist Church is the one major American Christian denomination that has not condemned the death penalty. Cahill also identifies a retributive, violence-obsessed strain of “extreme Calvinism” among Texas’ other Protestants that makes the abolition movement even less likely to take hold.

A Saint on Death Row is not without flaws. This thin book succeeds in presenting only two or three facets of what was a multidimensional personality and intellect. We see glimpses—but no more—of Green’s wickedly funny and earthy sense of humor. Cahill leaves many questions about Green’s biography and involvement in Andrew Lastrapes’ murder unanswered.

But Cahill has achieved something grander than straight biography here: an intervention in public memory. The state tried to reduce Green’s life to a single event by steamrolling substantial reasonable doubt. Cahill has made it impossible to regard crime as the sum total of Green’s existence, and replaced the state’s hole-riddled narrative with an inspiring story of growth and redemption. Cahill makes it clear that Texans lose something meaningful when the state takes a life like Dominique Green’s.

Perhaps this achievement is a small victory in the context of Green’s state-sanctioned murder, but it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate even the small victories as we work slowly toward justice in the death penalty capital of the Western hemisphere.

Todd Moye teaches U.S. history at the University of North Texas in Denton.