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MARCH 16, 2009:
TEXAS: 'A Saint on Death Row' by Thomas Cahill: a case against the death penalty
At first, it seems like yet another Texas case, one set in Harris County to be precise: A troubled young black male faces a murder charge despite weak evidence, appears before an all-white jury, ends up on death row and dies courtesy of the state.
But the saga of Dominique Green, executed by lethal injection in Huntsville on Oct. 26, 2004, diverges from the stereotypical script.
Born in 1974, Green had already been arrested three times before Oct. 18, 1992, when Andrew Lastrapes Jr., was gunned down during a convenience store robbery in Houston. Green swore he was not the killer. Evidence suggests he might have participated in the robbery but never shot a gun.
The book is not remarkable because of its suggestion of a deeply flawed criminal justice system skewed by the availability of the death penalty. Such books abound, involving cases in Texas and other states.
Instead, the book is remarkable because of Green's transformation in prison (note the word "saint" as part of the title) and because the believer in Green's sainthood is author Thomas Cahill, a sober historian whose best-selling books include How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews.
Cahill was living in Italy when he heard about Green. His messenger? Sheila Murphy, a retired judge from Chicago. Murphy had heard about Green's transformation, had visited him in prison and had become an advocate for rescinding his death sentence because the previously unschooled, thuggish inmate was spreading so much good throughout the world.
Cahill in time also became an advocate for a reduction of Green's sentence, as well as an advocate for abolishing the death penalty, reasoning that it does not serve as a deterrent and punishes inmates who demonstrate rehabilitation is possible.
Cahill stimulates deep thought about good and evil, and he is an intelligent, engaging historian. That said, he seems to lose perspective about Green. The effusiveness begins within the prologue and rarely diminishes. "His quiet brow shows no effort or anxiety, but his eyes, when concentrating, seem to look beyond the present to a better world that only he can see," Cahill says. "His countenance is suffused with an aura that, if one did not know something of the harshness of his history, might be mistaken for innocence."
If Cahill had showed more and told less, he would have served his readers – and the memory of Green – better. The flaws will not stop the tears, however. A Saint on Death Row is an affecting book.
Steve Weinberg is a journalist in Columbia, Mo. His newest book is Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.
A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green
Thomas Cahill -- (Doubleday, $18.95) (source: Dallas Morning News)