Death Row in All Its Horror

In 1970, at the age of 30, celebrated Irish American author Thomas Cahill visited Ireland for the first time on a trip that changed his life. "I went to what turned out to be what I'd call a prehistoric fertility festival called Puck Fair in Co. Kerry," Cahill tells the Irish Voice. "It was pretty wild and raunchy and quite unlike anything I ever expected. Except that I found myself connecting it to classical literature." The rituals of the ancient Irish world that Cahill found at the Puck Fair reminded him that they, like the Greeks and Romans, had once believed that the world was ruled by fate, and because your fate was already written at birth, it was inescapable. It was, Cahill says, a thoroughly un-American notion. It disturbed him. There was a kind of doom over everything that he saw at the Kerry festival, an inevitability that made him bristle too. All that Irish fatalism made him question his assumptions about the whole of western history. He began to wonder where his own values, obviously so different from the values of that Kerry festival, had come from. The first seeds of a remarkable canon of historical works had just been sown. Cahill's private questioning eventually led him to write a series of bestselling books that recount the history of modern Europe, including How the Irish Saved Civilization (first published in 1996) which shows how for generations of Irish monks preserved the classical texts of Greece and Rome, keeping the west's written treasury alive throughout the Dark Ages. Born in New York in 1940, Cahill grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx in a typical Irish American family. He studied classical literature and philosophy at Fordham University, graduating in 1964. Four years later he received an master's in film and dramatic literature from Columbia University. It would be another two years before a visit to Ireland in 1970 turned all that rarefied education on its head. Nowadays Cahill has successfully - and profitably - delved into the questions Ireland first set him. With his wife Susan, also a published writer, the couple now divide their time between their two homes in New York and Rome. It's the sort of comfortable life that anyone would be reluctant to upend, so it took former Chicago judge and social activist Sheila Murphy three years of arm wrestling to convince Cahill to accompany her into the 100 degree heat of the Texas Polunsky Unit detention center to meet a young man on death row named Dominique Green. Livingston, Texas is the last place on earth you would expect to find Cahill kicking around, and he knows it. What Cahill had not anticipated was how the friendship that developed between himself and Green would change his life. In his powerful new book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, Cahill tells Green's tragically short life story. In the process Cahill also shines a bright light on what he calls the racist and deeply flawed Texas legal system that he believes sent this innocent young man who became his friend to his death. The state of Texas murdered Green, says Cahill, with startling finality, and his book is in part an indictment of the Texas legal system. Cahill had once favored the death penalty himself, in the way that many people do, without giving a great deal of thought to the states where it applies, or the innocent people who sometimes find themselves sentenced under it. He had no reason to give it more thought. Until he met Dominique Green, that is, a man he has since come to consider a saint. Just before Christmas 2003, after repeated requests from Murphy, Cahill pulled up to the Polunsky Unit of Livingston Jail, an imposing facility that stands about an hour outside of Houston, where the 18-year-old Green was awaiting execution. Murphy had already given Cahill all the details. Green's court appointed defense attorney hadn't bothered to delve into Green's troubled background, making sophomoric mistakes in front of the jury. Murphy told him how Green had grown up in inner-city Houston, the eldest of three boys, and how they often were left to fend for themselves by their alcoholic and schizophrenic mother who's idea of punishment was to hold their tiny hands over an open fire. It got worse. On one occasion his mother actually tried to shoot him, failing only because Green's five-year-old brother had emptied the chamber moments earlier. A priest at St. Mary's, the school he attended in Houston, had raped him, and later as a teenager he would be raped again repeatedly by the male staff at a juvenile detention center where he was sent for possession of marijuana and an illegal weapon. Cahill quietly outlines how all of the soul crushing experiences constitute Green's childhood, underlining why so many young African American men can grow up into enraged and vengeful, boiling with resentment of the unloved. Given the few employment options of the ghetto, and emotional time bombs ticking inside them, petty crime often seems like a fast way to get what you need, and maybe get back at the world a little too. "He was a little ghetto kid and that's why he got convicted," Cahill tells the Irish Voice, matter of factly. "At the age of 18 he was sentenced to death by a Harris County grand jury for the shooting death of Andrew Lastrapes, Junior, a Houston truck driver. "Dominique's prints didn't match those on the murder weapon. He passed a polygraph test. He only signed a confession after the police threatened to arrest his mother. He had abysmal representation at the trial. I don't think he was the murderer of the man who was killed." There were five men involved in the attack. Patrick Haddix, the sole white participant, was never booked or charged with a crime. When the murder victim's widow attended the trial she developed great sympathy for Green because she saw that he wasn't being represented properly, and she saw that he had nobody. His mother slept through the trial. When she was asked on the witness stand what punishment her son should receive she said, "Whatever the law allows." Says Cahill, "The jury wasn't informed that his mother had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. She should never have been called to the witness stand. The attorney had no experience with capital cases and appeared to work with the prosecution. "What happened was that Green was brought into a courtroom, and within a day or so it was all wrapped up and that was the end of it. He never had a chance." Given all of this back-story, and what he had seen in his meetings with Green, Cahill changed his mind about the death penalty. The circumstances indicated that Green had been wrongly convicted. "Living and the wisdom that comes with age have taught me how many mistakes are made by well-meaning folks. I have read too many stories about the convictions of innocent people," Cahill says. "And then when you add politics to the program - and the death penalty issue is fraught with politics - you might as well be lighting a fire." In Cahill's view, Green was railroaded into a conviction, and the immorality of that injustice has convinced him that the U.S. reliance on the death penalty is immoral. In a diary that he kept about Green after their first meeting he wrote the following, "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. It's not innocence but goodness. It is unusual to come upon his combination of intelligence and simplicity, suggestive of an untrammeled soul." Cahill is writing about a young man accused of murder and talking of goodness, because he could plainly see all of Green's immense and thwarted potential. There was, he says, an obvious level of "goodness, peace and enlightenment in him that few people ever attain." It was beyond a scandal to see all of that potential thrown away, discarded as though it never had value. Says Cahill, "One in eight persons condemned to death are innocent, by the most likely estimate. The amount of mistakes made by our criminal justice system - especially, but not only, in the southern states - is staggering. "Sheila Murphy gave me all of Dominique's writings after his death, and it's my hope that in A Saint on Death Row that Dominique will speak to many readers in his own smiling, hopeful, playful and forgiving words." Cahill's book lends an eloquent voice - his own - to a remarkable young man who was for years locked away in the silence and inestimable loneliness of a Texas death row prison cell, and who barely had a chance to express himself in his own short life. Green was killed by lethal injection on October 26, 2004 and the unanswerable question that Cahill asks now is, what did we gain by killing him? A Saint On Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, Doubleday $18.95.

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