A Saint on Death Row

The life story of a young man who transformed himself – and others – during his 11 years in prison.

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Dominique Green, a poor black man from Houston, could easily have ended up like others executed on Texas’s Death Row: buried beneath a headstone sporting nothing but an X and a date. Instead, his ashes are buried in the shadow of a beautiful basilica in Rome.

They are there because of his ingenuity – and the remarkable transformation he brought about in his own life and the lives of others during the 11 years he spent in the most restricted section of state prison.

In A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, Thomas Cahill pays poignant tribute to a young life that ended at age 30 by lethal injection, but affected almost all who met him. After visiting Dominique in prison, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Green’s hero, called him “a remarkable advertisement for God.”

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Cahill, author of the bestselling, seven-book “Hinges of History in the Western World” series – including “How the Irish Saved Civilization” and “The Gifts of the Jews” – came to know Green well and care about him deeply. They met through a retired judge from Chicago, Sheila Murphy, who was working to win the young Texan’s freedom.

Green died for his role in a robbery at a convenience store that resulted in a shooting and a man’s death. A white youth in the group of teens was not charged, and a jury without any black members convicted Green, although someone else’s fingerprints were on the gun. The victim’s family believed in his innocence and opposed the execution.

Cahill’s moving tale shines a sharp light on a negligent and flawed justice system, and on a state that uses the death penalty far beyond any other. Texas has executed at least 425 people since the penalty was reinstated in 1976, while the next highest state, Virgina, has executed 102.

Yet Green’s story is also a stand-in for thousands, perhaps millions, of other American youths who get into trouble because they were raised in poor and abusive environments, and whose potential is often snuffed out.

As a small child, he was raped by a priest at his school. His mother, also abused in her youth, became an alcoholic and drug user, and once punished him by holding his palm over a burning flame. The youngster fled home with his two smaller brothers in tow, and struggled from then on to feed, clothe, and house them. Forced to steal in order to do so, he ended up several times in juvenile detention, where he was raped again.

The preponderance of Green’s heartrending story, however, plays out on Death Row, where he fought to prove his innocence – and read and read. One of the books that changed this bright young man’s life, Archbishop Tutu’s “No Future Without Forgiveness,” lit a flame. He set about forgiving those in his life who had hurt him and seeking forgiveness from others. And he began nudging other men on Death Row to do the same.

Dominique organized football pools, lessons on the law, and encouraged the men to contribute their innermost thoughts to a manuscript, seeking among other goals to eliminate the racial prejudices that divided them. Excerpts from their poems and prose reverberate with self knowledge, intelligence, caring, and descriptive power.

As his appeals failed, Green reached out to Italy, where the death penalty is frowned on. Sending a letter to Italian newspapers seeking help and friendship, he won several pen pals and support from the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic religious movement active in peacebuilding around the world. Sant’Egidio involved Judge Murphy, who became like a mother as well as a lawyer to Green, while her son became his close friend.

But it was too late – the Texas system and appeals courts were indifferent. He was executed on October 26, 2004.

While Green’s innocence was never established, Cahill says the most important question is, “Did he receive a fair trial?” The narrative leaves little doubt that answer is “no.”

Given the stark power of this tragic tale, it’s unfortunate that Cahill begins his storytelling with a prologue that tends to undermine his purpose. His description of his first impressions of Green is so glowing that one is immediately on guard as to whether this writer was predisposed by some leanings of his own to find a saint in a prison cell. Once the history itself takes over, however, the young inmate’s special character comes to the fore.

Those engaged in the growing movement to end the death penalty in the United States will find inspiration and help for their efforts from this short but riveting book. Others will be moved and reminded that many behind bars have much to offer if given the chance.

What stands out most, though, is the incredible price society pays for indifference – indifference to the needs of children, to flagrantly unjust systems, and to youths, often victims of abuse themselves, who are locked up and forgotten.

Jane Lampman is the Monitor’s religion reporter.

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