Wednesday, May 27, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Cahill advocates passionately for Death Row 'saint'

By Bill Williams

Dominique Green was 18 when Houston police arrested him in connection with a fatal shooting during a robbery. A jury that included no blacks convicted Green, an African-American, of capital murder. The court then sentenced him to death.

Thomas Cahill, author of the best-seller How the Irish Saved Civilization, sees Green’s “monstrously unfair” trial as evidence that capital punishment should be abolished.

Green grew up in an alcoholic household, in which his mentally ill mother punished him by holding his hand over the flame on a stove. At age 11 he was raped by a priest, and later by a staff member in a juvenile detention facility. He became a drug dealer to support himself and his brothers.

On the fateful night of his arrest, Green allegedly was with three other youths who confronted a man in front of a convenience store. When the man pulled a knife, one of the youths shot and killed him. Under Texas law, everyone involved in such a crime can be charged with capital murder.

However, only Green, the youngest of the four, was so charged. Two others, also black, received lesser charges and sentences. The only white youth in the group was set free.

Prosecutors offered Green a 30-year sentence if he would plead guilty, but he refused. No independent eyewitnesses put Green at the scene, and no scientific evidence linked him to the crime. Testimony against him came from his co-conspirators, who had every reason to shift the blame.

Cahill argues that Green never had a chance of getting a fair trial. He was represented by “exceedingly bumbling and naïve” lawyers who called Green’s mother as a witness, even while knowing she had been hospitalized for mental illness. She testified that her son should get the maximum sentence, which effectively sealed his fate.

Green’s case drew international attention. After meeting with Green, Desmond Tutu told reporters that it would be “one of the greatest tragedies if someone like Dominique were executed.”

During the decade that Green lived on Death Row, Texas executed more than 250 inmates. Green began wearing a long rosary around his neck, adding a bead each time the state ended the life of another inmate.

The widow of the victim said she forgave Green and pleaded with the state “to give him another chance at life.”

Green appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court rejected his petition. He was executed by lethal injection on Oct. 26, 2004.

Parts of the book, including the title, read like a hagiography. When the author met Green for the first time, he came away thinking Green could have been a Supreme Court chief justice or U.N. secretary general, which seems a bit of a stretch. Cahill says he used “saint” in the title to indicate he believes Green is with God.

He contends that Green underwent a conversion in prison, becoming an effective writer, advocate and spiritual mentor for other prisoners, but such transformations are not unusual among inmates, some of whom undergo remarkable changes.

People often ask the author if Green committed the crime. “I don’t think so,” he responds, while adding that he cannot “provide a definitive answer.” Green refused to say who fired the fatal shot, explaining that he would not become “a snitch.” He pleaded with his lawyers to try to locate the tape from a store surveillance camera that he claimed could have proved his innocence.

No one knows for sure how many innocent people are executed. Cahill includes an estimate of one in eight, without giving any evidence to support such an absurdly high figure.

The author is on stronger ground when he argues that the death penalty most often targets the poor and African-Americans.

The young men who took part in the robbery that led to Green’s conviction and execution likely know exactly what happened, but they are not talking. Cahill argues persuasively that police, prosecutors and the courts bungled this case from beginning to end.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

A SAINT ON DEATH ROW: The Story of Dominique Green, by Thomas Cahill, Doubleday, 144 pp., $18.95.

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