A Saint on Death Row

On October 26, 2004 a 30-year-old African-American, Dominique Green, was executed by lethal injection in Texas. The author, a writer of popular history, first met him in December 2003. This came about by chance; he had been asked by a friend of Dominique’s to make a stop-over flight in Texas and visit the condemned man. It was “almost the last thing I wanted to do,” admits Cahill. Thus began a brief, unlikely friendship between a poor, black convict rejected by society and from a deeply troubled background, and a privileged white man from another world, a world of well-being, education and social acceptance.

So who was Dominique Green? He was born in Texas on May 13, 1974 and raised, along with two younger brothers, by a single mother. Mentally ill, an alcoholic and prostitute, she was violent and abusive. The clever, sensitive oldest son dropped out of school and began selling drugs – not so much to make money for himself but to try to help his younger siblings over whom he was fiercely protective. Later, on Death Row, where he had the leisure and the isolation to reflect on his life, he wrote, “I chose the drug trade because I didn’t have the nerve to be a burglar, the cunning to be a thief, the will to be a pimp or the hate to be a hired killer.”

The inevitable happened. On October 18, 1992, he was involved, along with three other youths, in an armed robbery in which a man was shot dead. There were no witnesses and no evidence except the testimonies of the other youths that Dominique had pulled the trigger; no DNA tests were done. On the flimsiest basis he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Because of the complex American judicial system, he spent the next 12 years on Death Row until all the appeals ran out and the macabre procedure of capital punishment in Texas took its course.

In A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green Cahill is not mounting a general attack on capital punishment as, for example, Sister Helen Prejean does in Dead Man Walking, though he does demonstrate that most of those on Death Row in the American states that still retain the death penalty are there because they are poor and black, unable to hire good lawyers and therefore unable to prove their innocence. His purpose is to show how Dominique grew and matured as a human being during his years of incarceration and how cruel and unnecessary was his execution. Despite a few self-indulgent passages, such as the inclusion of some of his correspondence with Green, which strikes me as designed to impress the reader, this work should join the literature on the subject. Such documents will always be the most persuasive means of changing an archaic and primitive practice.

Ironically, it was solitary confinement that changed Green from an angry and embittered boy to a man of forgiveness, compassion and generosity, that “has made me the person I’ve always wanted to be”. His mentors in spiritual awareness were other convicts, also waiting to die; for their sake he made and wore a necklace of 101 beads, the number of friends he had known and lost over the years. “I am mentally, physically and spiritually crumbling,” he confessed after one mentor’s execution. Green created a community among these isolated and desperate men, helping them to forgive, advising them on their legal rights and teaching by his own example. (The author will not divulge the secret of how the prisoners managed to communicate with each other, but one guesses it involved an elaborate tapping and signalling code).

On Death Row Green read Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness; this provided the initial spur to his own change of heart. Indeed, among the endless letters he wrote to outside organisations, to enlist their help in his plight – for Green, who always maintained his innocence, hoped for release until the end – the one he wrote to Tutu brought this aged Christian warrior to the bleak visiting room in the prison, where they communicated by telephone through a thick wall of glass. Tutu was to plead with the authorities, “Don’t dehumanise yourselves as a society by carrying out the death penalty.” For Dominique, the appeal went unheard.

Cahill concludes his book with a list of anti-capital punishment agencies and websites. In his last message to Green he had written, “What is important about a life is not its length but its intensity and direction”. Certainly Dominique gradually found the meaning and purpose of his life in consciously re-directing it from cynicism and resentment to forgiveness; his last words were those of love. Cahill begins his book with a quotation: “If you are not loved, you do not exist.” Dominique loved and was loved; he existed.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.


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