Death Row Inmate Found Inspiration Amidst Doom Thomas Cahill is a noted historian of ancient civilizations. But in 2003, his life took a turn when he met a death row inmate, Dominique Green. Green became the subject of Cahill's new book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green. The author tells how Green inspired the lives of those around him in prison.
NPR logo

Death Row Inmate Found Inspiration Amidst Doom

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102039375/102039369" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Death Row Inmate Found Inspiration Amidst Doom

Death Row Inmate Found Inspiration Amidst Doom

Death Row Inmate Found Inspiration Amidst Doom

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102039375/102039369" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Thomas Cahill is a noted historian of ancient civilizations. But in 2003, his life took a turn when he met a death row inmate, Dominique Green. Green became the subject of Cahill's new book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green. The author tells how Green inspired the lives of those around him in prison.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Queen Of Soul, that is - yes Ms. Aretha Franklin. She will tell us why she rerecorded my "My Country 'Tis of Thee," the song she performed at the inauguration. And she'll tell us more about that fabulous hat - that's coming up. But first if you are a fan of popular history books, then you probably know the name, Thomas Cahill. He is known for historical bestsellers like "How the Irish Saved Civilization" and "Mysteries Of The Middle Ages". But here's something you probably don't know.

Dominique Green - at the age of 18 he was arrested after the fatal shooting of a man during a robbery outside of Texas Convenience Store. Green was present but always insisted he did not pull the trigger which is also the testimony of the only independent eye witness. Still, Green was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by a lethal injection in 2004. How Thomas Cahill came to befriend Dominique Green is part of Cahill's latest book, but it's only a part. The focus is on Green himself, who after 12 years on death row became an inspiration to those around him.

Which is why Thomas Cahill's new book is called "A Saint on Death Row: The Story Of Dominique Green" and Thomas Cahill joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. THOMAS CAHILL (Author: "A Saint on Death Row: The Story Of Dominique Green") Thank you for inviting me, Michel.

MARTIN: I think some people are going to have trouble swallowing saint. Saint on death row is something that some people are going to have trouble wrapping their heads around. So why saint?

Mr. CAHILL: Well I like - I like in your face titles. "How The Irish Saved Civilization" was another one. Why saint? I think he really was a saint. I think he was a saint in the ordinary sense of the word. He was somebody who was extraordinarily kind and extraordinarily patient. But I think also, even more than that, he was, in a more theological sense, a saint. He was somebody whom I know, many people think that he is still instrumental in their lives. People who met him in his last years and were in some way their lives were transformed by that meeting. And they remember him not just as somebody who is dead and gone, but as somebody who is still a living presence.

MARTIN: You write in your book, that often the first question you are asked is, did he do it?

Mr. CAHILL: Hmm.

MARTIN: And you go on to say that's the wrong question. What's the right question?

Mr. CAHILL: The right question is did he receive a fair trial? The truth of the matter is that for middle class people - the people likely to buy this book -if you or your child was in the kind of trouble that Dominique was in, you would immediately find a good lawyer and get down there to the police precinct. And your child, or yourself, or your - whoever it was that you were trying to take care of would not end up on death row or anything remotely like it. Why? Because you would have a good legal counsel. The reason that people end up on death row is not because they committed murder, it's because they are poor.

MARTIN: Do the question of whether he got a fair trial or not - right at the very beginning of the book, you have this litany of things that happened at the trial that for many people will shock the conscience. Do you want to tell me what some of those things are or read from the book, or…

Mr. CAHILL: There are a whole bunch of them really. In fact, you know, it's interesting that the widow of the man who was killed attended the trial - very fair-minded woman, a very good hearted person, in fact. And as she listened she thought this isn't a trial, this is some sort of pre-ordained ritual where they know exactly how it's going to come out in the end. This kid has nobody on his side and he's not being defended properly. And that's exactly the case. I mean the weirdest things happened in this trial - but not for Texas, I've got to say, stuff like this goes on all the time.

MARTIN: Give an example for people who aren't aware of this trial.

Mr. CAHILL: Dominique's mother was diagnosed repeatedly as a schizophrenic. She had multiple personality disorder. His attorney, the attorney supposedly representing him called her to the stand, which is a terrible mistake which they would have avoided if they had bothered to ask the defendant whether he wanted his mother brought to the stand. The mother was asked if she thought that her son was capable of murder and she said yes, of course he is. He's just like me.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. CAHILL: When later, at the sentencing phase, she was asked what should be done with Dominique, she said you should impose on him the full extent of the law. No good attorney would have called her to the witness stand.

MARTIN: Hmm. You also write the only independent eye witness did not identify Dominique as the killer.

Mr. CAHILL: Yeah.

MARTIN: The police did a deal with one of the boys - the only white one - that left Dominique charged with and convicted of capital murder. The white boy never charged with anything, went free, and the district attorney interfered with investigator's attempt to interview him and the three blacks went to prison. He alone was sentenced to death after testimony from a psychologist known to believe that African-Americans and Latinos are more prone to violence than others are likely to be. Apparently this was never challenged by his own people.

Mr. CAHILL: No-no-no. Well, not only was that non challenged, that psychiatrist was in fact representing the defense. He appeared on behalf of the defense. He was called by Dominique's lawyers. No one would call a man like that if you're representing a minority defendant and if you knew anything at all about anything, that just not how it goes. So I say, the first question is did he receive a fair trial? The answer to that is no.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Thomas Cahill. His new book is "A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green." How did you two meet?

Mr. CAHILL: An acquaintance of mine, then acquaintance, now a friend, Sheila Murphy who is a retired judge from Chicago was asked by a religious community in Rome who had befriended Dominique if she would help in his final appeals, which she agreed to do. And I, on another book tour, I ended my tour in Houston just before Christmas. And she said - well then you can visit Dominique. And I could tell you that was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. And I thought, Oh god, another day in Houston, going out to see this guy in the middle of nowhere. We'll have nothing in common, it's going to be like pulling teeth, it will be so awful - but I felt that I had to say yes.

MARTIN: Why, why did you go?

Mr. CAHILL: Well you should visit people in prison. You really should. And if you are invited to do so, you really should go.

MARTIN: It was a mitzvah. It was just a nice thing to do.

Mr. CAHILL: Well, you could call it that. Yes. I mean it's, you know, when Isaiah talks about the day of the lord will be the day of the freedom of prisoners, I think you have to take that seriously.

MARTIN: So you just thought you are going to meet this guy…

Mr. CAHILL: I just expected…

MARTIN: Be nice for one day, have a chat.

Mr. CAHILL: You know, I thought it would be hard, it was not hard at all. He was so articulate and smart and sympathetic. And he was such a wonderful conversationalist; he had such a terrific sense of humor. It was just all so different from anything I expected. The time went by, it seemed in no time at all. I couldn't believe that I met this guy on death row.

MARTIN: And then what happened?

Mr. CAHILL: Well I guess I got more involved in the case and unfortunately you could almost see where it was going to go. Sheila Murphy did her best, she did a great job, but no one was going to let Dominique Green off the hook.

MARTIN: And they didn't, in fact, he was executed in 2004.

Mr. CAHILL: Yes.

MARTIN: Were you there?

Mr. CAHILL: No, I could not be. I was in Germany the night of his execution, but I asked Sheila's assistant in Chicago to call me no matter what the time was, and she called me about two o'clock in the morning and told me that he was gone.

And after I put down the phone, I looked out across the street, and across from my hotel was this enormous elaborate gate that the Romans had put up in the second century A.D. It was made of these huge stones and had been put in place by slaves, and I just thought about the Romans and thought they knew that the owned the world.

They knew that they were the greatest. What they didn't know was that they were extremely cruel. They enjoyed blood sports. They enjoyed the gladiators in the ring. They enjoyed watching poor devils be eaten alive by wild beasts. But they never let themselves know how cruel they were, and I have to say that I feel that Americans have in some way replaced the Romans as the great leaders of the world who also hide from themselves their own cruelty.

MARTIN: What was it about this guy that touched so many people?

Mr. CAHILL: He really did touch an awful lot of people. There's no two ways about that. I think first of all and most importantly, he touched other people on death row, and I think that was his intention. He really wanted to help his fellow brothers, people like him who had no resources except the resources of their own wits.

And he became a real legal expert and was very helpful to getting a number of people off death row. Things that he actually couldn't manage to do for himself, he managed to do for others.

MARTIN: One of the people who Dominique came to touch, whose life he came to touch, was one of the sons of the victim. His name is Andre Lastrapes, and at the execution, Andre told reporters: I felt it was dirty, and the state will have their chance to face a higher authority - that is God. The hell with Texas and the justice system… A couple of things that I can't repeat on the radio.

Mr. CAHILL: You can't say it on the air, right?

MARTIN: And he says I'm speaking from the heart. I really mean that. I mean Andrew Lastrapes was my daddy. In the first place, I forgave Dominique. I know God has a place for Dominique in heaven. The person I met doesn't deserve to die. He became close to me, and I pray that he goes to heaven.

That's pretty remarkable from a person who had his father taken away from him.

Mr. CAHILL: The Lastrapes family is pretty remarkable. The mother of those young men, Bernetta Lastrapes, I met her. She's in a nursing home. She had a stroke, and she's paralyzed on one side, but there's nothing paralyzed about her mind.

And I said to her, how did you forgive - because she wasn't only talking about Dominique. I said how did you forgive these kids, and she just looked straight at me and said isn't that what we're supposed to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAHILL: I thought that that was one of the best answers I've ever heard to any question.

MARTIN: Another player in all this was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who actually visited Dominique on death row on a trip to the U.S. from South Africa. How did those two affect each other?

Mr. CAHILL: The first time I met Dominique, one of the things we talked about was a book he had just finished, which was a book by Archbishop Tutu called "No Future Without Forgiveness." It was a book about Tutu's chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which was a unique effort to put to rest the history of Apartheid after it was over and allow the society to heal and go on.

And the idea behind it was, that no matter what you had done during the Apartheid era, you were invited to say what you had done, and then you were invited to ask for forgiveness from the victims or the victims' families. In most cases, the victims were dead.

And Dominique decided that this was the program that he and his fellow inmates must follow. He forgave everybody who had hurt him, including his mother, which was not an easy thing to do. He asked for forgiveness from everyone he had hurt insofar as he could do so, and he passed the book up and down death row and urged other inmates to read it and to forgive, and ask for forgiveness. That's quintessential Dominique. That's what the man was like.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will draw from this book, particularly given that you and other advocates for Dominique Green did not succeed in saving his life?

Mr. CAHILL: I would like you to know Dominique Green. That's the first and most important part. I want to tell his story. This is not basically a contentious book about the death penalty. It's a book about one person's life. And it is a beautiful life. It is the life of a saint, even though a saint on death row.

MARTIN: There are many big questions that you raise in the book, the most obvious of which is the fairness of the death penalty, but you also make several very strong comments about the way this country takes responsibility for its children or refuses to do so. And you make some comparisons to ancient civilizations, which you have studied.

Mr. CAHILL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Where you talk about the way societies that we consider more primitive than our own have sort of sacrificed their children openly. You make the argument that we are, in effect, doing the same thing. Why do you say that?

Mr. CAHILL: I don't think that the death penalty has anything to do with justice. You can't get justice out of this thing at all. All of us been through this incredibly, national drama in which bankers and hedge-fund managers have stolen everything from everybody.

I wonder how many of them will go to prison? Very, very few, and outside of someone like Bernie Madoff, maybe no one. Why is that? Because they'll have good lawyers.

So why do we sacrifice the poor and minorities on this altar, which is basically an altar of human sacrifice. It's like something out of prehistoric times. I think we're saying well, somebody has to suffer here but not me. Take him. Put him on the altar. Let him be sacrificed.

MARTIN: But what about those who argue that there are some crimes which represent the outer boundary of what society can tolerate, and there has to be an ultimate sanction. And those would argue, people who torture people, people who abuse children. There needs to be an ultimate penalty if only to set an outer boundary. What do you say to that?

Mr. CAHILL: You know, recently the Innocence Project has, throughout the country, been reviewing old cases involving DNA. Now, not all cases involve DNA, but many do, and they have found that one in eight of all the convictions that they go over is the conviction of someone who was innocent, one in eight.

So do we really want to make that mistake that often, or would we like to be able to say well, this guy has been in prison for 30 years, and we just found out he didn't do it. At least he's still there, and we can let him out.

Why do we insist on taking his life? I think that we have to admit that our motivation is not based on justice. It's based on something else.

MARTIN: One thing I was curious about is that, as we've mentioned, Green was executed in 2004, and you met him the year before. The book was just published. I'm wondering why so long? It took five years. Why is that?

Mr. CAHILL: Once I started the book about Dominique, I ran into severe difficulties, and the difficulties were not difficulties in collecting information or even difficulties of interpretation. The difficulties were inside of me.

Every day I worked on the book, I was coming closer to a description of his execution, and I think for everyone who was close to that particular execution - we will never recover from it. We will never get over it. It was putting out a great light. Therefore, it's very hard to write such a book.

MARTIN: Thomas Cahill is the author of "A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green," as well as five other books of history, including "How the Irish Saved Civilization," "The Gifts of the Jews," "Mysteries of the Middle Ages." They are all part of the "Hinges of History" series.

"A Saint on Death Row" is available on bookshelves now, and Thomas Cahill was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Mr. Cahill, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CAHILL: I thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, Aretha Franklin's performance at the inauguration left millions of viewers in tears, but it left the Queen unsatisfied. Was she surprised that the Washington winter froze her famous pipes?

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): Oh no, I knew how cold that was going to be, and I thought that it would have an effect on my voice, and it did.

MARTIN: The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Excerpt: 'A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green'

By Thomas Cahill

book cover
Random House

MORE THAN JUST A ROSARY

By Dominique Jerome Green

I really would enjoy it if one of the first things people noticed about me was the radiance of my smile. The conditions under which I live have robbed many here of the smallest traces of happiness that once could have been found at the very core of their being. So heads hanging down, faces plastered by frowns and defeatist attitudes are things you find here en masse. Which is why the simple fact that I can smile, I can laugh, I can allow myself not to take this seriously should be more than enough reason to capture folks' attention, but it's not.

Instead, people are drawn to the black and blue rosary that adorns my neck, which is made of 101 beads, and which hangs to below my waist. As long as it is, and as stand-outish as it is, I don't know why I thought very little attention would be paid to it. But whatever the case may be, that was definitely wishful thinking on my part, because everyone who sees me ends up asking me questions about the rosary. The questions have ranged from gang-related to religious, from natural curiousness to understanding, from playfully humorous to sarcastic.

I used to not answer the questions. If I responded, I used humor or wit to put an end to or deflect the questions.

The reason I wear the rosary and have kept it for all these years was personal, something that only belonged to me. But recently, even my attorney asked about it when she came to visit.

The time had come, I decided, to finally talk about the rosary.

When I first arrived on death row, I was just a kid — one confused, smart-mouthed and belligerent kid. Fortunately, back then death row was nothing like it is now. Now we are all individually isolated. Then the environment was communal. I could interact with men who saw in me the potential to grow. Those men taught me, they mentored me, they helped me find myself. They showed me how to open my eyes and in turn open up my mind.

Today it's not like that. The communal environment that enabled me to grow is denied men who come here today, men who need those teachers, those mentors and those spiritual guides to help them understand that coming here is not the end of their lives but merely a second chance.

That all sounds so easy now. But at first I couldn't accept or even fathom that concept. I was like, "How can you even call living here on Texas Death Row a second chance at life?" What finally allowed things to fall into perspective for me was when a friend, one of my mentors, was set to be executed.

He told me the fact that his number was being called and not mine was what would give me a second chance to use all the knowledge he had passed on to me to make a difference in someone's life. His words stuck to my heart.

With his passing, not only did I pick up his torch, but I also began making my rosary, bead by bead. Each bead represents a friend, mentor or spiritual guide of mine who has died and who gave me the chance to use their knowledge and wisdom to touch other lives.

I never expected my rosary to get so long. As messed up as the Texas judicial system is, I expected the courts or the people to eventually put a stop to what was going on down here.

But they haven't. And 11 years after I was sent here, the death toll continues to rise. More than 250 people have been executed since my arrival. I've known almost all of them. I chose to stop adding beads to my rosary at 101, because by then I understood how to use what I had learned to have an impact on the lives of others and to help make a difference.

Most men here will never get the chance to understand self-discipline from people like Paul Rougeau; how to have a sense of humor even when things are at their worst from people like Rick Jones; how to have whole countries believing in them and showing an outpouring of support to free them like Odel Barnes; how to be a friend and big brother like no other like Vincent Cooks; how to never let this place break one's mind, body or spirit like Emerson Rudd; how to lead by being a follower like Ponchai Wilkerson; how to make people change their beliefs in capital punishment as did the wrongfully executed Gary Graham; and how to look at being here as having a second chance at life like Da'woud.

Those are lives my rosary reflects. So no, it doesn't bother me that my smile is not and probably won't ever be the first thing people notice about me. After all, its radiance is allowed to come from what I wear around my neck anyway.

Copyright 2009 by Thomas Cahill. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A.Talese, an imprint of The Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Books Featured In This Story