"His face has the dignity of a Benin bronze.... His countenance is suffused with an aura... [of] goodness." This is Cahill's opening description of Dominique Green, whose life and death the bestselling author (How the Irish Saved Civilization) recounts in a distinctly hagiographic tone. Green was a young African-American executed for murder in Texas in 2004, who Cahill and many others believe was innocent and convicted in a sham trial. Cahill's "saint" Dominique suffered (among other travails, he was abused by a schizophrenic mother), sinned (he turned to drug dealing, but only, he said, to support his younger brothers) and redeemed himself in prison by educating himself and aiding his Death Row comrades, whose quoted testimony to Dominique's qualities is more convincing than Cahill's own praises. But Cahill makes Green more than saintly, a Christ-like figure ("like the peaceful Jesus of the gospels, Dominique was on the verge of... transfiguration"). Given the spiritual and literary license Cahill takes, one must read this less as a reasoned argument than an impassioned, very personal plea against racism, poverty and the death penalty. (Mar. 10)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Greenby Thomas Cahill
On October 26, 2004, Dominique Green, thirty, was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas. Arrested at the age of eighteen in the fatal shooting of a man during a robbery outside a Houston convenience store, Green may have taken part in the robbery but always insisted that he did not pull the trigger. The jury, which had no African Americans on it,
On October 26, 2004, Dominique Green, thirty, was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas. Arrested at the age of eighteen in the fatal shooting of a man during a robbery outside a Houston convenience store, Green may have taken part in the robbery but always insisted that he did not pull the trigger. The jury, which had no African Americans on it, sentenced him to death. Despite obvious errors in the legal procedures and the protests of the victim’s family, he spent the last twelve years of his life on Death Row.
When Cahill found himself in Texas in December 2003, he visited Dominique at the request of Judge Sheila Murphy, who was working on the appeal of the case. In Dominique, he encountered a level of goodness, peace, and enlightenment that few human beings ever attain. Cahill joined the fierce fight for Dominique’s life, even enlisting Dominique’s hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to make an historic visit to Dominique and to plead publicly for mercy. Cahill was so profoundly moved by Dominique’s extraordinary life that he was compelled to tell the tragic story of his unjust death at the hands of the state.
A Saint on Death Row will introduce you to a young man whose history, innate goodness, and final days you will never forget. It also shines a necessary light on America’s racist and deeply flawed legal system. A Saint on Death Row is an absorbing, sobering, and deeply spiritual story that illuminates the moral imperatives too often ignored in the headlong quest for justice.
Noted historian Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization) movingly recounts 11 months spent with Dominique Green, a Texas death row inmate whom he met through retired Chicago judge Sheila Murphy. In descriptive, poetic words, Cahill tells of Green's chaotic and troubled life, which led him to admit participation in an armed robbery that had resulted in murder. Through the lay Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio, Green transformed his life in prison, according to Cahill, and became an earthly saint. Despite the efforts of Judge Murphy, Desmond Tutu and others, Green was executed by the state of Texas in 2004. Cahill includes poems and letters by Green as well as Cahill's specific criticism of Green's sentence. Unlike Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, Cahill's book is not an all-out attack on the death penalty so much as a meditation on a life reborn through faith. Recommended for general readers.
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A Saint on Death Row
The Story of Dominique Green
By Thomas Cahill
Nan A. Talese
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One 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, Dominique 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. Hollingsworth, 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."
Excerpted from A Saint on Death Row by Thomas Cahill Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Cahill. Excerpted by permission.
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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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There may be, in fact, good reason to do away with the death penalty, but this book does not make a good case. Why aren't victims saints? Why doesn't the book address the total corruption of the judicial system?
I read this book hoping there would be a situation where someone was on death row because he was innocent. Instead Domonique is clearly guilty. He did, indeed, change while he has been in prison and has helped many people along the way, but, the fact is, he is guilty. I'm confused and feeling a bit uncharitable toward this young man.