Archbishop Desmond Tutu believed in the healing power of forgiveness. He spent his life as a practitioner of that philosophy. I was fortunate enough to spend a day with him almost twenty years ago, March 24, 2004. I’ll never forget it.
Archbishop Tutu was against the death penalty. Instead, he believed in rational punishment along with a strong measure of forgiveness. I watched him practice this when he visited a death row inmate named Dominique Jerome Green in the Huntsville prison in Texas almost 20 years ago. I was with Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu and with author Thomas Cahill, perhaps best known for his Hinges of History series. As a licensed, practicing lawyer, I was also allowed to visit Dominique.
While we were waiting, Archbishop Tutu asked in his gentle, lilting voice, “You Americans are so generous. Why are you so vindictive?” He was speaking of course of America’s use of the death penalty. I struggled to answer the Archbishop’s piercing question. Why are we so vengeful?
Dominique was a black teen convicted of capital murder by a Harris County, Texas jury without a single black member on it. He had never before been arrested for or convicted of a violent crime. Dominique was one of 4 men (3 black and 1 white) who participated in a robbery resulting in the killing of Andrew Lastrapes. Dominique admitted he participated in the robbery but denied that he was the man who shot Mr. Lastrapes. The other black men testified against Dominique, in return for which the State dropped its capital murder charges against them. All the black men went to prison, while the white man who admitted being present at the murder and sharing in the proceeds from the robbery was not indicted at all.
Dominique came from a poor, seriously dysfunctional family, abused and tortured by his mentally ill, alcoholic mother and abandoned by his alcoholic father. He was thrown out of his home at age 15.
Dominique’s trial was tainted. There were no black members of the jury who convicted him. The trial judge appointed as Dominique’s lawyer a man who had previously been criticized for falling asleep while representing another death row inmate. Dominique’s court-appointed lawyer hired as an “expert” on Dominique’s “future dangerousness” the psychologist Dr. Walter Quijano. In arriving at his opinion this “expert” considered Dominique’s race as a danger factor but failed to share his bias with the jury. (This expert was not only racially biased but he was also dead wrong: Dominique became a model prisoner.) The jury undoubtedly noticed Dominique’s mother sleeping through some of her son’s capital murder trial. What type of mother could sleep through her son’s trial for his life?
I visited with Dominique by talking to him via a phone connected to the small cage in which he was held. By this time, Dominique had been on death row for about 10 years. He was dressed in solid white, and his smile lit up his cage. I felt that smile envelop me with goodness even through the thick glass between us. He seemed at peace, not at all embittered, saying that his time in prison had transformed him. Being caged for 23 hours of each day with only 1 hour for limited exercise had not destroyed Dominique’s spirit. He spoke of the older death row inmates who had mentored him, and of those younger inmates he had in turn mentored himself. Every time someone was executed on death row, Dominique added a bead to the rosary he kept with him. He talked of the time he spent time drawing and writing poetry. He spoke with great empathy for the pain of Mrs. Lastrapes, the widow of the murdered man.
Mrs. Lastrapes and her sons were outspoken in their efforts to have the State commute Dominique’s death sentence: “I do know that the execution of Dominique will not bring back my husband. The sentence was too harsh. That young man deserves another chance at life.” In a letter Mrs. Lastrapes wrote to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, she said that Dominique’s trial was unfair. “God teaches us that we should forgive one another as he has forgiven us. All of us [the family of the victim] have forgiven Dominique for what happened and want to give him another chance at life. Everyone deserves another chance! * * * For the love of God and justice, please commute his sentence to life.”
Dominique was executed by lethal injection about 6 months after I met him. Mrs. Lastrape’s pleas for mercy fell on the deaf ears of the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles and then Texas Governor Rick Perry. They did not have it in their hearts to forgive. The day before Dominique’s death, the victim’s son Andrew Lastrapes-Luckett met for 90 minutes with Dominique in a rare face-to-face session. “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, “ Lastrapes-Luckett said. “We’re not dogs. We’re human beings just like everybody else. He’s a human being, just like me, just like you.”
Archbishop Tutu was demonstrably touched by his visit with Dominique. He spoke about it later that same day in March 2004 at a press conference and a special service held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Livingston, Texas. He offered that he came away from his meeting with Dominique “deeply enriched” by his encounter with this “extraordinary young man.” He asked, “Can you imagine what it’s like not to be touched? I high-fived Dominique through the thick glass that separated us.” He continued: “Dominique could have become self-pitying, but he’s not a bit like that. I was humbled to be in his presence. He’s a remarkable advertisement for God.”
Archbishop Tutu believed that anyone can go to Heaven. As he said to me, “God’s standards are very low. There are no monsters; there are just people who commit diabolical, monstrous deeds. You can’t blame monsters.”
I asked Archbishop Tutu what Nelson Mandela was like. Without hesitation, Archbishop Tutu exclaimed, “Oh, he was horrible, just horrible – until he went to prison. Then he became a saint.” Several years after visiting Dominique, author Thomas Cahill wrote a powerful book about Dominique entitled A Saint on Death Row. As it had with Nelson Mandela, prison transformed Dominique. Nelson Mandela was given a second chance, and look at how he transformed his country and embodied the power of forgiveness. Imagine the good that Dominique might have done had he been forgiven by the institutions of the State of Texas.
Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness influenced millions, including Dominique and me. As President of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Tutu presided over a remarkable international event: Exposing the atrocities of the past but then achieving reconciliation with the former oppressors. It was not easy, but it worked.
As Archbishiop Tutu explained in his book:
In forgiving, people are not being asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. * * *. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.
The Lastrapes family did not forget but they forgave and, in so doing, I believe they healed themselves and showed us how to do the same.
I wish Rick Perry had read Archbishop Tutu’s book. I wish he and the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles had heeded the pleas of the victims’ family to spare Dominique death by lethal injection.
In Pope Frances’ September 2022 prayer of intention, he pleads for the abolition of the death penalty throughout the world. He said that there must be “a window of hope” in every legal sentence. Capital punishment, he adds, “offers no justice to victims, but rather encourages revenge. And it prevents any possibility of undoing a possible miscarriage of justice.” The Pope is speaking on behalf of poor, powerless people like Dominique.
The Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, Italy will never forget Dominique. It was his story that in large part motivated Sant’Egidio to embark on a worldwide campaign for a universal moratorium on capital executions. When they are successful in having someone sign that moratorium, the ancient Colisseum in Rome is lit brightly. In those lights, I see the smile of Dominique Green.
Dominique’s last words were: “You are all my family. Please keep my memory alive.” I’m one of those who will always remember you, Dominique. You changed my life, like Archbishop Tutu, showing me the power of forgiveness. I will light a candle for you every October 27, the day your life was extinguished by the unforgiving, vindictive State of Texas.
WRITTEN BYFranci Neely