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Lethal Reflection

Considering Dominique Green, capital punishment, and justice

By Michael Corbin | Posted 4/15/2009

This winter, as a cost saving measure in an economic downturn, the State of Maryland closed down C-Block on the grounds of the former penitentiary on Forrest Street in East Baltimore. Now called the Metropolitan Transition Center, C-Block at the former penitentiary was a prison within the prison, the administrative segregation unit, or adseg, for the recalcitrant among the more than 1,700 men now incarcerated at the Center. The cells within C-Block were notorious among the inmates. Designed to hold one inmate from an era where human beings were on average smaller than they are now, two men regularly filled the ancient adseg cells.

C-block also had a mythical quality among some inmates because it still contained the architectural trace of the gallows where 75 men were hanged.

C-block sits at the south end of 4-yard, right next to the prison hospital that runs inside the wall, yards from Baltimore's Madison Street and where Maryland's gas chamber still resides. Here in the hospital is also the current death chamber. Maryland, like most other states that still choose to execute men and women, has used lethal injection as its clinical, hygienic, most capital of punishments.

And thus it was by that particular clinical methodology that Dominique Green, at aged 30, was executed by the state of Texas. Green's execution and short life--he was arrested, convicted, and sent to Death Row at age 18--is the subject of popular history writer Thomas Cahill's remarkable new book.

A Saint on Death Row (Nan A. Talese) tells, on one level, the Kafkaesque particulars of one young black man's transmogrifying journey through the justice system to its ultimate punishment. On another level, the book is the story of how a young black man held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day helped inspire a movement for an international moratorium on state-sanctioned executions, helped inspire a U.N. resolution against the death penalty, hosted a pilgrimage by South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu to death row in Huntsville, Tex., and helped transform the lives of the other men with whom he shared death row.

Most powerful, however, is the story of redemption and forgiveness contained in this slim volume. In stunning testimony of the human heart's capability for forgiveness, Bernatte and Andre Lastrapes, the wife and son of the man Dominique Green was executed for allegedly having killed, spoke out about the injustice of Green's trial and bore witness to both Green's personal apotheosis and the inexorably tragic meaninglessness of his execution.

Cahill, author of the popular "Hinges of History in the Western World" collection (including How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gift of the Jews) does not write as a polemicist, an expert on the law, or as courtroom dramatist. With deceptively casual prose, Cahill writes of how he came to be personally involved with Green's case and, more deeply, with Green himself. More like a set of extended reflective journal entries--indeed, Cahill's prologue is him quoting from his own written first impressions upon initially meeting Green--the voice in A Saint on Death Row is without the bathos or plaintiveness of a mere death-penalty partisan. It is the voice of a layman looking on with growing disbelief at the machinery of the state as it moves toward taking the life of a young man.

Cahill's voice is one that registers an innocent's incredulity of the scenes that play out: Stephanie Green--Dominique's estranged, schizophrenic, drug-abusing mother--is seen when called by the defense telling the court that her son is capable of killing and urging "the court to inflict on her son whatever punishment the law allowed," virtually assuring his guilt with the jury. The trial judge is noted as having opined, "The Constitution doesn't say the [defense] lawyer has to be awake." The syllogism of the expert psychological witness for the defense is noted: "those who grow up in social circumstances like Dominique's--that is, without a caring parent--lack a normal conscience; therefore, Dominique doesn't have a normal conscience."

Dominique Green's own powerful and sometimes self-damning voice--his letters, his poems, his conversations with interlocutors through the glass in the partitioned visiting room of death row--is woven throughout the book.

Despite the title, Cahill does not gild Green's life. He started out a young tough from the streets of Houston, caught up in a life very common to many kids across urban America. He was that young and thuggin' archetype of the American imagination. He was with a group of other young men out robbing and menacing when Andrew Lastrapes, a black truck driver, was shot dead. Green blustered when caught about not being a snitch. He wrote a letter to another inmate when first incarcerated that he signed off with the lyric of the Houston-based Geto Boys--"Ima Trigga Happy Nigga"--which was later introduced as prima facie evidence of his guilt.

But Cahill's measure of Green and the narrative propulsion of the book is the absurdity of the justice meted out and the seemingly inexorable, ritualized movement to kill Dominique Green. The book, in patient detail, captures a young street kid responding to that deadly serious absurdity with such growing equanimity, grace, and saintliness.

Dominique Green always maintained his innocence. None of the other young men who were apprehended with Green faced the death penalty. One--the only white co-conspirator, who acknowledged sharing in the spoils from the day's criminality--didn't even get jail time. Green was the only member of the group who could not post bond, the only one who could not afford legal counsel, the only one to pay with his life. "Dominique," Cahill writes, "is where he is for two reasons only: because he is poor and because he is black."

That blunt but inescapable conclusion, like all of A Saint on Death Row, can be read as a brief in support of what Maryland's General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley are expected to do this legislative session--making the Free State's use of capital punishment the most restrictive of the 35 states that still sanction executions. Similarly, it supports New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson, who in March signed into law legislation that makes that state the 15th to ban capital punishment. "I do not have confidence," Richardson said on the occasion, "in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime."

Dominique Green was pronounced dead at 7:59 p.m. on October 26, 2004. When confronted by reporters shortly thereafter, Andre Lastrapes, who had befriended Dominique Green and regularly visited him on death row, said, "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. They were full of shit, and I am speaking from my heart. I really mean that. I mean, Andrew Lastrapes was my daddy in the first place, and I forgave Dominique . . . The person I met doesn't deserve to die." Thomas Cahill's excellent book allows readers to meet Dominique Green and suggests that no one deserves to die like he did.

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