Tutu visits Texas death-row inmate in effort to raise profile of his case

Convicted as a teen-ager, Dominique Green is one of 451 awaiting execution

March 25, 2004|By Lianne Hart | Lianne Hart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LIVINGSTON, Texas - This is a town of pine forests, bass fishing and - near the end of a winding road - a cluster of low-slung concrete buildings that house 451 convicted killers on Texas' death row.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu visited one of the condemned men yesterday, pressing his hand in greeting against a glass partition. Dominique Green, 29, pressed his palm to the glass in return. It was part of a 45-minute meeting that accomplished what 11 years on death row had not: The high-profile visit gave Green a public face and, his supporters hope, a chance at life.

"I have met quite a few people in my time, but I have not been as impressed by someone I met very briefly through a glass partition," Tutu said later at a news conference. "He is a remarkable young man. It would be one of the greatest tragedies if someone like Dominique were to be executed."

Green was 19 years old when a jury sentenced him to death for the fatal shooting of Andrew Lastrapes Jr., 41, during a robbery in the parking lot of a Houston shopping center. Lastrapes was one of 10 people robbed during a three-day spree.

While Green's case is not so different from others on death row, what makes him stand out is the unlikely set of circumstances that led Tutu to an isolated prison in east Texas.

Thomas Cahill, a historian and best-selling author, earlier had visited Green at the suggestion of a friend, who happened to be one of Green's appeals lawyers. During the encounter, Cahill said, Green told him that one of Tutu's books had changed his life for the better.

Cahill said he was struck by Green's determination to share with inmates Tutu's belief that people should "ask forgiveness from everyone we've hurt and to forgive everyone who has hurt us," Cahill said.

After talking to Green, Cahill said he e-mailed his friend Tutu and asked the human-rights advocate to pay Green a visit. Tutu obliged, taking a detour during a trip to Dallas.

"He is like a flower opening, and you see the petals come up," Tutu said of Green. "He could have felt self-pity, but he was nothing like that; this is not the monster that many would wish, or think, that is on death row."

Tutu called capital punishment a perverse way to show respect for life, an "absurdity that brutalizes society."

"You are one of the most generous peoples in the world, Americans, but I find that very difficult to square that with a remarkable vindictiveness which doesn't square with your incredible generosity," he said.

"It's definitely been an experience," Green told the Associated Press of his talk with Tutu. He showed Tutu a long rosary that he made, one bead for every inmate who has been executed since his arrival.

"He told me enlightening and inspirational things. It definitely gave me a lot to think about. I don't really know how to describe it. It's just one of those moments in life you refer to," Green said.

"I look at him as a person who has been able to make a difference, and I can make a difference on other people's lives," Green said. "The goal is to get a new trial. My hope is just to inspire people to want to make a difference. It's something I didn't have till I got here. But it doesn't matter if it's in here or out there."

Green's case is before the U.S. Supreme Court, his lawyers said yesterday. His supporters believe Green's trial was marked by racism, that his court-appointed trial lawyer was incompetent and that he was the product of a dysfunctional family that jurors did not consider. An all-white jury decided the fate of Green, who is black.

Former Texas legislator Frances "Sissy" Farenthold, who came to hear Tutu speak at a nearby church after the prison visit, said that executions are so common in Texas that the public hardly notices anymore.

"You read about them in three paragraphs on page 8 of the local newspaper," she said. "At least now this case is getting some attention, even if the focus is only for a few minutes. In Texas, all you can do is try."

Green does not have an execution date. This year, nine Texas inmates have received lethal injections. The state has executed 321 inmates since it resumed capital punishment in 1982, the highest number in the nation.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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