by David Atwood, Pax Christi Texas and Founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
If I ever had a doubt about my work to abolish the death penalty, that doubt came to a crashing halt when the State of Texas executed Dominique Green, a young African-American man from Houston, on October 26, 2004.
I had been visiting Dominique on Texas Death Row for many years. When I first visited him, he was an angry young man – angry at his mother and father, angry at society, and angry at the criminal justice system that sent him to death row. But over the years, I saw him change. He forgave his mother who had abused him as a child and caused him to leave home and live on the streets of Houston. He forgave the gang members who had pointed to him as the person who had pulled the trigger that sent Andrew Lastrape to his grave during a robbery in Houston. He forgave everyone in his life whom he felt had failed him in some way.
Dominique became educated and grew to be a man in prison. In addition to myself, several people from Italy, including several members of the Sant’ Egidio Community in Rome, visited and wrote him on a regular basis. His interest in forgiveness came in part from reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness. He wanted to meet Tutu and this was made possible by well-known author, Thomas Cahill, who knew the Archbishop. After Tutu visited Dominique on death row, he spoke to the press and stated that Dominique was a “wonderful advertisement for God….I was very humbled to be in his presence because I felt to be in the presence of God…(Dominique) is not the monster that many would expect or think, but a human being, a human being that has grown…He’s like a flower opening and you see the petals coming up, particularly when he is speaking about his concern for others…He is a remarkable young man and it would be the greatest of tragedies if someone like Dominique was executed.”
Dominique not only forgave the people who had hurt him, he also taught other prisoners on death row that they should forgive the people who had hurt them. This extraordinary transformation caused Thomas Cahill to write a book about Dominique that he titled A Saint on Death Row .
As Dominique’s execution approached, his appeals attorney, Sheila Murphy of Chicago, asked if I could locate the family of Andrew Lastrape in Houston and ask them if they wanted Dominique to be executed. When I located the family, Bernatte Lastrape and her two sons Andre and Andrew, they all gave a resounding “no” to the question of the execution. They wanted to give Dominique a second chance at life. Bernatte actually wrote to Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and asked them to spare Dominique’s life. Bernatte wrote, “All of us have forgiven Dominique for what happened and we want to give him another chance at life. Everyone deserves another chance.” Perry and the Board refused to do so, showing the hard-heartedness of the politicized Texas criminal justice system. As the execution date got closer, Andre and Andrew traveled to death row with me to meet and reconcile with Dominique. It was a most extraordinary experience. When Andre came out of prison, he said, “Texas is going to put a righteous person to die like an animal, putting him on a table, strapping him up, putting those needles in his arms, putting him to sleep. We’re not dogs. We’re human beings just anybody else. He’s a human being just like me, just like you.”
Andre and Andrew also attended the vigil outside the execution chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, to protest Dominique’s execution. I was inside the prison attending the execution of a man who had transformed his life and had a lot of wisdom to share with society. It was very painful experience to see Dominique die before my very eyes. Before the execution, Dominique made me promise that I would fight against the death penalty until it was abolished. His last words to his friends as he lay on the execution guerney were, “Thank you for your love and support…I have overcome a lot…I am not angry but disappointed that I was denied justice….But I am happy that I afforded you all as family and friends…..You all have been there for me…It’s a miracle…I love you…Thanks for allowing me to touch so many hearts….I never thought I could do it. “
After the execution, we held a funeral for Dominique in Houston. Then my wife and I took his remains to Italy. The Community of Sant’ Egidio built a monument to his memory in Rome.
Guilty or Not?
Dominique was one of four boys who robbed Andrew Lastrape in Houston in October of 1992. He was the youngest of the four boys and the three older boys pointed the finger at him as the person who shot Lastrape during the robbery. Dominique always maintained that he was not the shooter. What I found most distrurbing about the legal proceedings was that Dominique was the only one to get the death penalty. Two of the other African-American boys in the gang got prison sentences and the one white boy in the gang did not go to prison at all although he was involved in the robbery. It appeared to me that Dominique’s legal representation had been very poor and he had been railroaded to death row.
Through my years visiting Dominique and other men on death row, I have learned many things about how the death penalty is applied in Texas. First of all, our criminal justice system is imperfect. Several innnocent people have been sentenced to death. Many factors enter into whether someone is sentenced to death or not, including the quality of the legal defense, the race of the offender and the victim, and where the crime takes place. Poor people are at a great disadvantage when it comes to avoiding capital punishment in Texas because they simply do not have the funds to hire the best defense attorneys. The death penalty is truly “arbitrary and capricious” despite attempts to improve the criminal justice system.
Second, I learned that rehabilitation in prison often occurs, but means nothing to the politicians who run the system. Mercy and clemency are almost unknown qualities in Texas. Dominique was a prime example of this, but several other rehabilitated people such as James Allridge have been executed in Texas.
Third, many families of victims do not want the death penalty for someone convicted of capital murder. The Lastrape Family is a wonderful example, but there are many people like them. They know that an execution will not bring back their loved one nor bring them the healing that they desperately want and need.
Fourth, the death penalty does not deter others from committing violent crime. I have been told this by several death row prisoners and professional studies have shown this to be true. However, what might reduce violent crime in society are more effective crime prevention measures. Many people on death row were horribly abused and neglected as children and many have untreated mental disabilities. The millions of dollars wasted on the death penalty could be better used to actually prevent violent crime as well as help the victims of crime.
A Higher Road
Although Dominique Green was involved in a crime where an innocent man was murdered, his transformation in prison has a lot to offer society. His ability to forgive, and the ability of the Lastrape family to forgive, are excellent models for society. Just because someone kills, we as a society don’t have to kill in return, and we should not. We can choose a more enlightened response, a higher road, that involves forgiveness, rehabilitation and the wise use of taxpayers’ dollars.
Dominique’s Legacy Lives On
Many people would be surprised that a death row prisoner, one that had been executed, would leave a legacy. But Dominique Green definitely has left one. He taught many people, including other death row prisoners, the importance of forgiveness. He showed people that prisoners, even those on death row, can change and contribute to society. And he motivated me to continue the fight against the death penalty until it is finally abolished. Without his example, I may have given up trying to abolish the death penalty in Texas for it is, indeed, difficult work. But in Dominique’s memory, I will never give up.