A Saint on Death Row: How a Forgotten Child Became a Man and Changed a World

Overview

Bestselling author Thomas Cahill tells the absorbing, heartbreaking tale of the hard life and tragic death of Dominique Green—wrongly accused, then executed in Huntsville, Texas—and shines a light on our racist and deeply flawed criminal justice system.
 
Green, an extraordinary young man from the urban ghettos of Houston, was utterly failed by every echelon of society—the Catholic Church, numerous U.S. courts of law, and even his own ...
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Overview

Bestselling author Thomas Cahill tells the absorbing, heartbreaking tale of the hard life and tragic death of Dominique Green—wrongly accused, then executed in Huntsville, Texas—and shines a light on our racist and deeply flawed criminal justice system.
 
Green, an extraordinary young man from the urban ghettos of Houston, was utterly failed by every echelon of society—the Catholic Church, numerous U.S. courts of law, and even his own mother.  But from the depths of despair on Death Row, he transcended his earthly sufferings and achieved enlightenment and peace, inciting an international movement against the death penalty and inspiring his personal hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to plead publicly for mercy.
 
A Saint on Death Row is an unforgettable, sobering, and deeply spiritual account that illuminates the moral imperatives too often ignored in the headlong quest for judgment.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book is a life-changer.  Thomas Cahill has shown—through the extraordinary life of one man—that God works everywhere and can bring the most beautiful soul to maturity in even the most horrifying circumstances. If you read his story you will never forget Dominique Green, nor will you ever feel the same way about our courts, our prisons, and our criminal justice system.”  —Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking

“Though this is a book that ends in death, it does not end in despair. Read it and discover how even the obscenity of capital punishment can be transformed into an occasion of light and peace.” —Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa

"A deeply moving narrative about a man transformed as he faced an unjust execution."  —James H. Cone, author of Black Theology and Black Power
 
“I expect A Saint on Death Row to become a classic in the growing struggle to cleanse this nation finally of the sin of the death penalty.”  —Jonathan Kozol

“Riveting. . . . [A] poignant tribute. . . . Cahill’s moving tale shines a sharp light on a negligent and flawed justice system.”  —The Christian Science Monitor
 
“An inspiring story of growth and redemption. . . . Cahill has achieved something grander than straight biography here: an intervention in public memory.”  —Texas Observer
 
“An affecting book. . . . Cahill stimulates deep thought about good and evil, and he is an intelligent, engaging historian.”  —The Dallas Morning News
 
 “Intensely powerful. . . . A case history of the failures of society. . . . There is so much in this meticulously researched and clearly explained book to make you think.”  —Washington Lawyer
 
“Powerful. . . . [A] story of redemption and forgiveness. . . . In patient detail, [Cahill] captures a young street kid responding to [the death penalty] with such growing equanimity, grace, and saintliness. . . . [An] excellent book.”  —Baltimore City Paper
 
“Remarkable. . . . Cahill’s book stimulates deep thought about good and evil. . . . Readers could count themselves foolish to pass by any book he writes. . . . An affecting book.”  —The Tampa Bay Times
 
“Moving. . . . A powerful challenge to any notion that all is more or less OK with the administration of criminal justice in the US. . . . Once you’ve gotten to know [Dominique Green] in Cahill’s pages, [he] is not likely to slip very quickly from your memory.”  —Richard Bernstein, The Daily Beast
 
“Everyone who reads [A Saint on Death Row] will be touched by it. . . . Dominique’s shining example of a rehabilitated life, indeed a rebirth within a living death, will surely stand as silent witness against the continued employment of the death penalty.”  —www.curledup.com
 
“Compelling.”  —The Miami Herald
 
“Cahill reveals the stomach-knotting circumstances of Dominique’s childhood years with great sensitivity. . . . This is not merely an academic account of miscarried justice. [Cahill is] lending [his] voice to someone who has been dehumanized, debased. . . . Cahill’s central question lingers like the burn of stomach acid in the back of one’s throat: What did we gain—what?—by killing him?”  —Paste Magazine
 
“An inspiring example of human development on Death Row.”  —America Magazine

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767926461
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/9/2010
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 345,306
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

THOMAS CAHILL is the author of five volumes in the Hinges of History™ series: How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages. They have been bestsellers not only in the United States but also in countries ranging from Italy to Brazil. He and his wife, Susan, also a writer, divide their time between New York City and Rome.
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Read an Excerpt

1

The man known to me as Dominique was born Dominic Jerome Green in Houston, Texas, on May 13, 1974, the first child of Emmitt and Stephanie Faye Smith Green. This was less than four months after my own first child was born. As in all our lives, the most important truths of our histories come to us through the uncertain lenses of remembrance, viewpoint, and self-justification. It is always hard, and often impossible, to sort out what actually happened from the way it is remembered either by the subject himself or by those closest to him. But having listened to several witnesses to Dominique's early life, I set down here the truest account I can frame of his early years.

That Stephanie was a mother from hell seems to be taken for granted by everyone. But the truth of this portrait is open to question at least in some of its particulars. How did Dominique, who looked so much like her, who possessed her intelligence and even her cunning, evolve into the expansive human being he became if all his early experiences were negative? Mothers mold us more surely than do all others. In his earliest years, Dominique's mother was a different woman from the creature she became. Our most damning evidence against her comes from the 1980s, and there are no incidents related of her before 1981 that would force us to name her an abuser of children.

I met Stephanie and spent several hours with her in mid-July of 2007. There can be no doubt that most people would find her evasive, narcissistic, and creepy. The row of gold-capped teeth that glint from the front of her mouth, combined with the quicksilver indirection of her responses, can almost leave the impression that you are speaking with an android, a counterfeit human being.

Stephanie was brought up in a household that she claims was in league with the devil, a family devoted to the worship of Satan. Certainly, her mother was a practitioner of voodoo and believed she could put curses on other human beings and magically control them. Stephanie was forced as a child to have sexual relations with several, perhaps all, the mature males of the household and of her extended family. When she was barely into her teens, she gave birth to a baby girl, the result of one of these encounters. Her mother took the baby and raised it as her own and threw Stephanie out of the house before she was fifteen.

Despite this terrible beginning, Stephanie was able to function as wife and mother at least for a while. From the first, she acted the part of the dominant parent, Emmitt always assuming the more passive role. Defining herself in contrast to her mother's grotesque religious practices, she attended her local Catholic church and had her children baptized there. Stephanie surely admired her first baby: "I remember this little guy about nine months old tottering across the floor on his feet. He's nine months old and he's walking, O.K.? I remember this little guy who used to have a beautiful smile. He was smart as a whip. He could do anything he set his mind to. He'd do it. He was always leading stuff."

In 1976, two years after Dominique's birth, his younger brother Marlon, another handsome child, was born. The two boys became inseparable companions and, soon enough, co-conspirators. Stephanie and Emmitt would have a third child, Hollingsworth, but not till 1985. By then, the cracks in their lives had become too obvious for anyone to miss.

When Dominique was six, two supposed friends of Emmitt broke into the house, intending to rape Stephanie and kill Dominique and Marlon in retribution for a drug deal gone wrong. They did not succeed. But when Dominique was seven, another episode of violence left its invisible scars: Dominique was raped by a priest at St. Mary's, the Catholic school he attended in Houston. Though his mother withdrew him from the school, she failed to inform either the police or school or church authorities. She did not even tell Emmitt, nor did she arrange for a medical checkup for her son. From this time forward, the life of the Green family started to disintegrate as Stephanie, succumbing to the nightmares of her own history, began to ignore her children and enter into the world of destructive madness she has inhabited inconstantly ever since.

It is a common experience of sexually abused children that they come to think of themselves as disposable beings of no account. That, after all, is what those closest to them have shown them they are worth, that is what society has reinforced by its silent nonintervention. All that is required is for such children to internalize this external judgment of others as the value they place on their own lives. They become zeros--and they begin to act out their own emptiness. This is why sexual abuse of children is often labeled  "soul-murder."

Of course, this process can be short-circuited and even reversed if there are people in a child's life, especially parents, teachers, and similar figures of authority who stand up for him, telling the child--by word and especially by deed--that he is valuable, that the rape (or lesser abuse) was an evil exception that should not be factored into his own judgment of himself.

It may be that Stephanie was whole enough, courageous enough, to ward off for a time the judgment that her family of origin had placed on her, but that an attempted rape and the attempted murder of her children, followed by the rape of her firstborn son by a sacral figure in whom she had placed her trust, was too much for her to withstand. The rape of Dominique, especially, may have so troubled her that she could not recover her equilibrium.

She descended into alcoholism, began to prostitute herself for money--in full view of her children--and alternately ignored and persecuted them. She was especially hard on the eldest, who stood up to her and resisted her bizarre impositions and demands. She beat him, scorned him as weak, demeaned him as "the black sheep." She had come to hate him, as she hated herself, for having been raped. Emmitt, never a bulwark but nonetheless a skilled musician who taught Dominique to play drums and guitar, turned into a full-fledged drug addict, absent in mind if not in body--a characteristic casualty of the 1980s. About this time, Emmitt's mother, Dominique's loving grandmother, died. She was the adult Dominique had been closest to and felt protected by. One would think that the familial landscape could hardly become more bleak.

And yet, life continued to worsen. "Alcoholism," Dominique would recall much later, "changed my mother. It ate up her mind and slowly destroyed her heart. No longer was she that loving and caring mother I once knew: she became very hateful, bitter, and unfortunately abusive. All the memories she'd repressed, all the things she went through in life, came back to haunt her in full force." The household was now awash in booze and drugs, and unsavory visitors often lurked nearby or within the precincts. Phone calls were often received from pushers, pimps, and johns. When Dominique, who had just recently learned his letters, received one of these calls and failed to write out a message for his mother, she punished him by holding the palm of his right hand over a gas flame. It was a close replay of something her own mother had done to her. A few years later, Stephanie would punish Dominique in the same way again. Luckily, Dominique was left-handed (which his mother bullied and taunted him for), but he carried the ugly scarring from these incidents into adulthood. When _Dominique was nine, his father gave him a gun for self-_protection.

By the time he reached eighth grade, Dominique resolved to be known by the name he would bear from then on: he was no longer "Dominic," the name his mother had given him at his birth; he was reborn as "Dominique," the name he had given himself. It was a token of the growing resolve of this boy to take control of his life, to act as his own man.

A year later, in 1989, Stephanie and Emmitt separated; in the same year, Stephanie suffered a head injury at the Nabisco factory where she worked and had to be hospitalized, after which her behavior deteriorated further. In one incident, she shot at Dominique with a pistol because she thought he had left a metal knife in her microwave, which then exploded. It was actually the five-year-old Hollingsworth who had done so, but Dominique, observing his mother's hopped-up condition, took the blame for the explosion. Before she went for the pistol, little Hollingsworth, foreseeing what would happen next, managed surreptitiously to empty the pistol of its bullets. Stephanie would attempt to shoot Dominique on one more occasion but succeed only in shooting up her own car, which was parked behind him--her sons finding this an occasion for hilarity.

In 1990, Stephanie was admitted to a mental institution, the first of several such admissions, and she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. When her children visited her, she claimed not to recognize them. The children were left at home alone to cope as best they could. Dominique was then beginning to get into trouble with the law and found himself sentenced briefly to a juvenile detention facility because he had been found with a small quantity of marijuana and an illegal weapon. That summer, Stephanie, in one of her visits home, tried to have Dominique placed in juvenile detention again, along with Marlon, her middle child. Failing to achieve this objective, she kicked both boys out. In the same summer, Emmitt, at a new job after a spell of unemployment, roused himself at last and obtained custody of all three sons. But Dominique, "so hurt," as he put it, refused to board with his father and, resolving to find a new way to manage, dropped out of sight. 

For a time, Dominique crashed with friends, then spent some weeks in the open with a homeless man, who taught him the ins and outs of sleeping under the highway or in abandoned cars. Finally, Dominique rented a storage shed as a place to live. He was finished trying to abide Stephanie. Though he had left home on a number of occasions in the past, this time he had no intention of returning. He was also finished with school. After the rape at St. Mary's, he had attended a public elementary school, then two different middle schools, followed by three different high schools. Though he was smart and intellectually curious, the goal of education, as it appears to normal children, could have no appeal for him.
He hoped to avoid additional stints in juvenile detention, where he had been sexually abused by staff, especially on visitors' days when no one ever showed up to see him. While other children were receiving visits from family members, Domi-
_n_ique was lying on his bed in a pool of his own blood, which leaked from his torn anus. Pedophiles, always drawn to jobs that entail unsupervised work with children, are also keenly aware of which children lack adult protection. (A series of reports in the Dallas Morning News, beginning in February 2007 and picked up by newspapers such as the New York Times, has brought to light that the sexual abuse of minors has long been pervasive in Texas's institutions for juvenile correction.)
In his late twenties, Dominique would look back on his personal experience of sexual abuse in a poem entitled "What does hate create?":

I watch him
                cry out
                stretched out
                turned inside out and nobody does anything no one utters a peep but everyone knows what happened and feels the tears that pour down his face understands the pain that dyed his sheets with blood from hungry erections injecting him with hate.
Next to this poem, he would one day draw a surrealistic picture of the boy these rapes had made of him, a tense, tearful child out of whose eyes grow thorny stems that end in fantastic flowers--a multivalent image that incarnates the tension between the child's private aspirations and the pain of his _reality.
Just sixteen, Dominique knew his fate was now entirely in his own hands. But he also meant to do whatever he could to protect his brothers, an obligation he took with high seriousness.
Both Marlon and Hollingsworth remain full of memories of Dominique's protective role in their early lives. Hollings_worth, eleven years younger than Dominique, remembers him as "a loving, honest, true friend, a mentor, a leader," who took him to clothing stores and toy stores and to the amusement park to ride the go-carts and the little trains. He played basketball and football with Hollingsworth and his friends and was always "very gentle." Marlon recalls being afraid of the dark and Dominique descending from the upper bunk bed to lie next to him till he'd fallen asleep. "He was almost like my second dad. He did a lot of things that a father should do and my mom couldn't do." Dominique tried to teach Marlon how to withstand Stephanie, how not to give in to her in his mind. "About the time that Mom started getting physical, he was like a human shield almost," Marlon remembers. "He deflected a lot of stuff that was directed towards us from my mom [and from] a couple of my teachers. He served as a buffer. She told us that she really didn't want us, that she wished she had never had us. After that, it was just him and me against the world." Emmitt himself admitted in an interview in 2003 that Dominique cared more for his brothers than did he and Stephanie.
How would Dominique at sixteen continue to protect these brothers, at the mercy of mad Stephanie and inconstant Emmitt? Part of the solution would lie in earning sufficient money. He had already had some experience selling drugs; now it became his livelihood. "I chose the drug trade," Dominique would write later, "because I didn't have the nerve to be a burglar, the heart to be a jacker, the cunning to be a thief, the will to be a pimp, or the hate to be a hired killer. I was just a kid trying to find a way for me and my siblings."
Given the household he came from, he was hardly unfamiliar with drugs. He had sold them from the age of eight, once dealers recognized that cute little Dominique could serve as the perfect pusher. When he was nine, his mother began taking half his drug money from him, as if he were working for her. More than once, he had even sold drugs to each of his parents. He had gotten high on pot at thirteen--to find out what the experience was like--but the idea of taking drugs regularly held no allure for him. It was a business, the only one he knew.
He had begun somewhat inauspiciously by selling white candle wax, which he refashioned to resemble rocks of crack cocaine, but soon he was embedded in the brisk trade that fed the crack epidemic. "Dominique," says Marlon, looking back, "wasn't selling drugs so he could go out and buy flashy cars or anything like that. He just wanted the money so we could live."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Dominique Green bore the emotional and physical scars of his mother’s abuse and was estranged at times from his father, yet Dominique displayed extraordinary parenting skills, giving powerful guidance to his brothers and his fellow inmates. How would you answer the question Thomas Cahill poses in chapter one: “How did Dominique … evolve into the expansive human being he became if all his early experiences were negative?” How might what Dominique learned be implemented with other at-risk youth?

2. For Dominique and thousands of other youths, the juvenile justice system became a mandatory home. Does it appear as though there is any kind of support structure for the children in this system, and is enough done to prepare children in the system for life on the outside? How would you characterize the family Dominique created for himself inside prison?

3. Near the end of his life, Dominique hoped that Shelia could teach Stephanie how to be a mother. Was his hope realistic? Would having a mentor, someone to teach parenting, help in abusive situations such as the ones Dominique and Stephanie found themselves in?

4. In his poem “What does hate create,” reprinted in chapter one, Dominique describes how it feels when “nobody does anything/nobody utters a peep” while he is raped. Though sexual abuse of minors in Texas’s juvenile corrections facilities has received significant media attention, his poem raises the broader question of child neglect. How can this sort of abuse be prevented? Is there any way to readjust societal norms so that institutional abuse of children is never tolerated? What would it take to fund foster programs and sufficient numbers of child advocates in your community?

5. Cahill describes blooming flowers as a reflection of Dominique’s journey to adulthood. What legacy has Dominique left for his younger brothers? What did he teach them about becoming a good man?

6. In chapter six, Cahill expresses frustration at those who miss the point of Dominique’s experience. The question, Cahill says, was not whether Dominique was guilty but whether he got a fair trial. What are the best responses to those who believe that the poor receive sufficient legal representation?

7. Chapter two includes a quote from the Los Angeles Times in which Judge Shaver, who presided over Dominique’s trial, says, “The Constitution says everyone’s entitled to the lawyer of their choice, and Mr. Benn was their choice. The Constitution doesn’t say the lawyer has to be awake.” Chapter four reveals that Sheila Murphy could not serve as Dominique’s principal attorney because his existing counsel could only be removed by court order. What would it take to mandate high standards for public defenders in your community?

8. If you had served on Dominique’s jury, how would you have reacted to the case presented by the prosecutor?

9. Discuss Texas’s “law of parties,” described in chapter two, which allows accomplices to be convicted of capital murder even if they did not actually commit the murder. Do you believe that the law is constitutional? If a Texas legislator proposed to repeal that law, could he or she stand a chance of getting reelected?

10. Dominique loved listening to news programs, but Cahill describes incidents in which the media distorted or omitted key facts about his case (see chapter five). In what ways is the struggle for justice a struggle for publicity? What is the best way to serve as a media watchdog?

11. Dominique said that he never expected his rosary, whose beads represented friends, mentors, or spiritual guides who had been executed, to grow so long. He chose to stop adding beads at 101. A rosary is typically used for counting prayers; what does Dominique’s rosary say about his approach to prayer?

12. How was Dominique able to keep his faith from being extinguished despite a lifetime of hardship (including sexual abuse by a priest at his Catholic elementary school)?

13. Dominique was transformed by Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, in which the former archbishop of Cape Town describes chairing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How did Dominique exemplify the commission’s principles? How do these principles compare with the image of a God who orders sinners to suffer?

14. Discuss the book’s title. Who were the saints and the sinners along Dominique’s road to execution?

15. Did A Saint on Death Row change your beliefs about the nature of suffering in the world, and the nature of joy and love, good and evil? If so, how?

16. How did you react to the anthology produced by Dominique and his fellow inmates? What insights did you gain from their voices?

17. Cahill begins the first chapter by observing that Dominique was born less than four months after the birth of Cahill’s first child. In a similar exercise, compare your childhood to Dominique’s, in terms of family life, education, culture, comfort, and other factors. If you had been born into Dominique’s family, where would you be today?

18. The widow of Andrew Lastrapes, along with their sons, vocally opposed Dominique’s execution. Groups such as Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (www.mvfr.org) oppose the death penalty in all cases. How was a bridge built between Dominique and the Lastrapes family? What distinguishes families like the Lastrapeses and those survivors who approve of capital punishment?

19. Dominique’s team of supporters came to include Stefania Caterina and others from around the globe. How do cases like Dominique’s—and the existence of capital punishment in general—affect America’s standing in the world?

20. Discuss Jessica’s role in Dominique’s life. What factors led her to such an accomplished adulthood? What could she and Dominique have accomplished together if he had been raised in different circumstances?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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