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Lessons to be learned from the condemned

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Updated: September 6, 2014 6:27AM



The best part of my summer is taking the time to read outside.

One of the books I finally got around to is “A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green,” by Thomas Cahill.

The honorable Sheila M. Murphy, the former presiding judge at the Markham courthouse, sent me a copy of Cahill’s book earlier this year.

No thicker than a devotional, the book kept me firmly in its grip until the last page.

“A Saint on Death Row” is the tragic story of a black teenager who was arrested at the age of 18 for the fatal shooting of a man outside a Houston convenience store in 1992. Green landed on death row, and it is there that he began his transformation to manhood.

Throughout his incarceration, Green professed his innocence.

Lawyers who tried to have the death penalty overturned concluded that Green was the victim of a “flawed legal system” that prevented justice from prevailing.

Despite attracting legal help from experts like Murphy, now an adjunct professor at the John Marshall Law School, Green exhausted all of his appeals without being granted a stay of execution. He was legally put to death on Oct. 26, 2004.

Thirty-two states still use the death penalty, and Texas tops the list for executions.

Yet it wasn’t Green’s execution that had a profound impact on me, though the book moved me to tears.

As I looked around the classroom at Skinner West Elementary School, where a group of young people — all participants in the Chicago Police Department/Chicago Housing Authority summer program — was gathered on Monday, I wanted each of them to find what Green found.

From the very start, life was not fair.

Green was brought up in a home so dysfunctional that at age 15, he took his younger brother to a storage shed to live and sold drugs on the street so they could eat.

At 18, he was the youngest, and the poorest, of three men accused of robbing people at gunpoint. During one robbery, a man named Andrew Lastrapes was killed by a single shot. The lone white man, who admitted being present at the murder and sharing the proceeds of the robberies, was not indicted or prosecuted.

Green ended up bearing the full weight of the crime.

He could have become hateful and full of rage. Instead, he became a comfort to others and used his skills to help where he could.

After the celebrated South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited Green in prison, Tutu described him as “a remarkable advertisement for God.”

“He’s like a flower opening and you see the petals come up, particularly when you see him speaking about his concern for others,” Tutu said.

In his book, Cahill recalls a conversation with Green about how the condemned came to self-knowledge:

“One of the first things I learned in coming to Death Row was how to be myself. Simple as that may sound, it was far from an easy task, because before I came to Death Row I was many different things to many different people. . . . I didn’t know after being condemned if I should prove to the jury that sentenced me to die that I was not a monster. . . . I never had anyone in my life to teach me how to be me. That was something I had to take the time to discover on my own, and it was one hell of an experience.”

Unfortunately, for those who are growing up in urban poverty, Green’s plight will be all too familiar.

But Green made sure the life he had stood for something.

Can we who are free do anything less?

Email: marym@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST



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