A Killing in Texas

Thomas Cahill’s moving new book about Death Row in Texas exposes the horror of executions—and the power of forgiveness.

03.10.09 6:06 AM ET

If you're at all like me you've always assumed that the criminal justice system generally works pretty well in these United States, even knowing how slowly its wheels turn and that serious mistakes are made. Darkening the picture, of course, is the racial element, the unequal treatment of black defendants. And then, there's the death penalty, which puts us into the dubious judicial company of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Afghanistan, and other countries where you wouldn't want to stake your life on the independence of a humane judiciary, and that is disturbing. Still, in contrast to those countries, we have real defense lawyers here, independent judges, an attachment to the presumption of innocence, and a certain correction mechanism to catch mistakes, sometimes.

Read Thomas Cahill on ending the death penalty.

Well, actually it would be a bit naive to give a ringing endorsement of the way things work in the United States. Even so, prepare for your level of disturbance to be pushed up a quantum step or two by Tom Cahill’s new book, A Saint on Death Row, which mounts a powerful challenge to any notion that all is more or less OK with the administration of criminal justice in the US. Known for books like How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gift of the Jews, and other charmingly erudite excursions into cultural history, Cahill has produced a very contemporary piece of reportage and observation in his new book. At the center of it is the “saint” of the title, one Dominique Green, who, once you’ve gotten to know him in Cahill’s pages, is not likely to slip very quickly from your memory.

The first thing to know about Dominique is that he was put to death by lethal injection at 7:59 p.m. on October 26, 2004, having been convicted 12 years earlier, when he was 18 years old, of a murder he probably didn’t commit. Cahill met Dominique, as he refers to him throughout the book, a few years before the execution and became deeply involved in his case, not out of some anti-death-penalty activism but because of the striking effect that Dominique had on him. And what gives his book its power to break the frozen sea within us, is the character of Dominique himself, a person who started badly but acquired genuine moral grandeur during 12 years on Death Row, somebody that any reasonable person would prefer to be able to remain alive.

Not that Dominique’s qualities of compassion, the sweetness of his personality, his eloquence as a poet and writer, or the beneficent influence he had on other Death Row inmates, should matter on the larger political question that Cahill poses about the administration of justice in Texas. After all, even the vicious and unredeemable are entitled to the protections the judicial system is supposed to provide. Still, that Dominique Green rose morally above those who killed him wrecks any sense of the abstract that one might have had about Death Row inmates in general. I say this aware of the misjudgments some writers besides Cahill have made in portraying a criminal in saintly, or even just admirable terms—Norman Mailer’s championship of Jack Abbott, who had literary talent but, after getting out on parole, killed a man, comes to mind.

A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green. By Thomas Cahill. 160 pages. Nan A. Talese. $18.95.

But it’s impossible to read Cahill’s quiet, straightforward, entirely unforced portrait of Dominique without being moved by it, even knowing that, without doubt, he did some foolish and criminal things when he was a troubled teenager. He was almost certainly among a group of three young men who robbed a truck driver at gunpoint outside a convenience store in Texas in 1993. During the robbery, the truck driver was killed and surely Dominique bears a heavy responsibility for that. Still there’s no proof that he actually pulled the trigger, and yet only he was charged with a capital crime by Texas’s police and prosecutors. The reason for this highly unpreferential treatment would seem to be that Dominique was the most vulnerable among the three suspects, the easiest to nail.

There were no eyewitnesses to the crime, so the only testimony against Dominique came from the two other men arrested with him, both of whom were looking for good treatment. His defense lawyers were, as Cahill puts it, “bungling and naïve.” They called his abusive, schizophrenic mother to the stand and she promptly told the jury she thought Dominique capable of murder and that he should get the maximum time. Among the items of evidence against him was a letter he wrote in which said he was a “trigga happy nigga,” a citation from a popular rap song of the time that Dominique was clearly employing in the ironic way of the black street culture. The prosecutors harped on the phrase as proof of his intention to kill more people if ever given the chance.

Dominique Green made such an impression that even the murder victim’s wife and children joined the small campaign that was waged to save him.

“Dominique was an innocent,” Cahill told me on the phone. “He didn’t know what real trouble he was in. He didn’t know that they intended to kill him, and that’s what happened.”

Cahill got involved when an appeals lawyer in the case, a former judge from Chicago persuaded him to visit Dominique on death row, while Cahill was in Texas on a book tour. Over time, as he came to know and admire Dominique, he also began to appreciate the real situation of Texas justice. And what got was a sort of double lesson, in Dominique himself as a person who started out as a naïve street kid and grew into a fully formed and deeply impressive man. He made such an impression that even the murder victim’s wife and children joined the small campaign that was waged to save him. The second thing that Cahill learned was how amazingly unfair and cynical the system of Texas’s Harris County (which leads the country in executions) was.

“I’d never known anybody in prison before,” Cahill said. “Middle-class people like me are insulated from these experiences. We just don’t know how tough it is to be in a situation where not only would you not have the money to hire a lawyer but you’d also never imagine you had the need.”

But in Dominique’s case, Cahill said, “the game was over before it started.” Cahill is especially furious at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which denied Dominique’s appeals. This is the very court whose presiding judge, Sharon Keller, now faces impeachment proceedings following her refusal in 2007 to keep her office open 20 minutes past its usual closing time so an emergency appeal could be filed. The defendant in that case was executed that very night. Cahill quotes one “young, conscientious, white lawyer,” saying, ‘In Texas, the object is to fry as many niggers as possible.’”

Why? “We hide from ourselves our own evil tendencies, and I think there really is a tendency in society to make somebody pay for something,” Cahill told me. “We don’t really care who it is.

“I think the real evil in the world is cruelty, and cruelty is the enemy of civilization, the true barbarism,” he continued. “And I think the death penalty, especially as it’s carried out in Texas, is an example.”

Richard Bernstein is a writer based in New York. He was a critic and foreign correspondent for the New York Times for 24 years. His new book, The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in June.