Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Child On Death Row - The Story of Shareef Cousin




“I was a child. Death row didn’t affect me like it would now. Today, I’d go crazy!” On July 3, 1996, when Shareef Cousin was only seventeen years old, he became the youngest inmate on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. As a matter of fact, he was the youngest person in the world to be sentenced to death at that time. 

The thirty-four-year-old man who works with me in the RAE House is Shareef Cousin. I have only known him for a couple of months, but the person I know is ambitious, driven, and eager to change the world. He presents himself as well-educated and hard-working. He refers to himself as an organizer. 

Before I ever met Shareef, I read a synopsis of his story…just a few paragraphs, but enough to peak my curiosity. I had heard little tidbits about him, and wondered how a kid, the same age as the students I’ve been teaching for four decades, could possibly survive the harshness of a death sentence for a crime which he did not commit. 

Last Friday night, I finally heard him tell his story to an audience. I had been told that he makes his listeners angry, that he leaves them wanting to take action, eager to become involved in the solution. I have found that to be absolutely true! Then, today, he sat down and answered my questions. He gave me a few hours of his time, to try to help me to understand where he has been and where is he today. 

Shareef described his childhood, growing up as the seventh of eight children of a single mother who was a minister in New Orleans. “We had the biggest house on our street, the only two-story house, and all of the kids in our neighborhood hung out in our basement.” He went to Catholic elementary school, and then moved to Massachusetts to stay with his older brother, where he attended school for eighth and ninth grades. When he returned to New Orleans for his sophomore year at F.T. Nicholls High School, he was bored and unchallenged. His gifted classes in Massachusetts had prepared him well, but not for the slow pace of public schools in New Orleans. He began cutting classes, and would ultimately find himself a high school dropout, not by choice, but as a result of his arrest for murder in 1995. 

When Shareef was only sixteen years old, he was arrested for the murder of Michael Gerardi, outside of Port of Call, a restaurant on the outskirts of the French Quarter.

Despite video and numerous witnesses providing absolute proof that Shareef was playing in a basketball game at the time of the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Every possible factor was a part of his story: prosecutorial misconduct (The prosecutor actually “kidnapped” the witnesses for the defense during the trial), lack of investigation (His mother lost her home and church paying fees for inadequate legal defense), his age (only seventeen years old, a juvenile), his race (black on white crime), suppressed evidence, police dishonesty (One of the homicide detectives anonymously called in the tip to Crimestoppers, which had Shareef arrested and collected the reward himself!), and of course, the oft-debated issue of capital punishment. The media coverage was enormous…”Geraldo,” Time, Essence, satellite interviews from death row. “They made a website about my case, and I would get large bags of mail every day from strangers.” 

Attorneys convinced Shareef to plead guilty to four unrelated robbery charges, promising him a lesser sentence of ten years, of which he would serve half. He was assured that they would win the murder trial with the overwhelming evidence proving his innocence. None of these promises were brought to fruition. He was sentenced to twenty years for the robberies, death for the murder, and still remains on parole today for the robberies, with which he had no connection whatsoever. 

“It might have been all of those kids hanging out in my basement. They were all robbing people, and the police saw me as their ring-leader. I had been in a little trouble – things like truancy and smoking weed. Once I was arrested for possession of a firearm. That was crazy! I was just carrying it for my image. I never even had any bullets to put in that gun. I was just a bad kid!” 

“Did you ever notice?” he asked me. “The feds build a case. Sometimes it takes years. And then they make an arrest. The state, on the other hand, makes an arrest and then they start to build their case. You see that? That’s what they did to me. I was framed.” 

Yes, I see that, but I must admit that I didn’t “see that” until Shareef pointed it out to me.

When asked about his time on death row, Shareef paused before responding. “As a child on death row…children are immune to it in a sense. I went up there playing a lot. I was a kid. I dealt with it like it was all a joke.” I sense his childish idealism as he continues, “I knew I didn’t do it, so I knew I was going home. I got depressed. I cried because I missed my family and friends, but I never thought I wouldn’t make it home.” 

Shareef never received an execution date while he was on death row. “None! Everybody else was getting them, but not me. I brought life to the guys on death row, by the fact that I was always upbeat, crackin’ jokes, playin’ a lot. I think everybody on death row has hope. 90% think they never will be executed. Even the ones who know they are guilty don’t think it will ever really happen! ” It definitely happens. The cruel reality of the situation is that three men were executed while Shareef was there. 

Education was a top priority for Cousin on death row. “I literally went to school on death row by myself.” Shareef set a schedule for himself. He got up and got dressed for school every morning, and went to school right there in his cell. He set a schedule for his classes and kept to it. He taught himself math from 8:00 until 9:00, English from 9:00 until 10:00, social studies, science, and all the other courses throughout the day….every day! When he left death row and went into general prison population, he had to trick the administration into letting him get into literacy classes, by telling them that he could not read or write. After a few more slick moves, he was able to take the GED and passed it on the first try. His next step was to take correspondence courses from LSU. 

“Release from death row was bittersweet.” Cousin was offered a plea bargain. He could plead guilty to the murder, be released on time served, and it would all be over. “One of the attorneys representing me in my appeals encouraged me to take the offer and go home! I was like NO! Right after that, just about two or three hours after I turned them down, they dropped the murder charges completely. It was a Friday. I was on the tier at Orleans Parish Prison while I awaited trial. It was lunchtime and I was playing spades. We saw it on TV. The murder charges against me had been dropped. I found out about it from the television, because they didn’t allow attorney visits between 11 AM and 1PM."

Cousin says that he wasn’t even happy when he saw that on television. He wanted to go to trial. “I was disappointed. All the shit they did me in my first trial! This time it wouldn’t be me on trial; it would be them on trial. I would take part in my own defense. They were going to be made a spectacle of. That’s why they dropped those murder charges – just to protect themselves.” 

It was the end of death row for him, but Cousin still had to remain in prison. The murder charges were dropped, but those robbery convictions that had been used as a bargaining tool persisted. “I was happy to leave most of those guys on death row. But people like John Thompson and Juan Smith…I didn’t want to be there, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave them behind either.” 

Shareef Cousin cannot remember the exact date that he came home. When he was finally released from prison in September of 2005, he could not come home, because there was no home to come home to. Katrina had devastated New Orleans only a couple of weeks before his release, so he went to a cousin’s house in Bossier City, in order to have a Louisiana address. “They would have sent me to a shelter if I didn’t have a family member to go to in Louisiana.” He went to visit his mother in Massachusetts for a week. 

Rachel, his attorney, lived in Atlanta, and Shareef went to stay with her to get back on his feet. “I wasn’t thinking about feelings at that point. I was happy to be out, of course, but I was thinking about what I needed to accomplish. I spent a lot of time those first months studying for the ACT and the SAT.” In January, Cousin entered Morehouse with a free ride, and worked fulltime to abolish the death penalty, at Southern Center for Human Rights as a community organizer. He received no compensation from the state or counseling for his mental or emotional needs, and he did not know how to say “NO.” This articulate young man was the perfect person to represent the cause. “People were using me up. My life seemed like it was designed for me. I was doing what everyone expected me to do. I didn’t make any decisions for myself. Life was happening to me. I wasn’t living my own life.” 

“I was doing what everyone expected me to do, but I was lost. I was immature in relationships, finances, decision-making, period! I was also very impressionable. I had a sense of entitlement. They owed me after what they did to me. Now I realize no one owes me anything, but at that time I couldn’t see life like that.” 

The inevitable “relationship” occurred, and Shareef wasn’t prepared for the ready-made family he found himself a part of. She had three kids already and they had another child. Shareef had never lived with a woman and he wasn’t ready for that at all. He was in his third year at Morehouse and working full-time. Since he did not have a father in his life when he was growing up, he wanted the opposite for his family. “Even though I knew she wasn’t the woman for me, I stuck with the relationship, taking over the financial burden of an entire family. I had been comfortable by myself. I bought a five bedroom house in Atlanta to give my child a home. I never thought about the responsibilities of home ownership. Everything started going downhill. She wasn’t working. I was in a financial bind with a $1500 mortgage, car note, utilities, insurance…all that! I had to find more dollars!” 

Shareef began attending real estate seminars, the kind you see advertised on television in those infomercials. Seeking a way to make some easy money, he became involved in fraudulent real estate deals, and found himself back in jail. “I was really unhappy! In a way, I sort of welcomed the jail sentence. It was almost an out for me…out of that bad relationship, that is.” When he was released from the Georgia prison this past summer, he chose to return to New Orleans. He says that Atlanta feels more like home to him, but that there is death penalty work to be done all over the country, and he thought he would give New Orleans a try. Shareef chooses to live in the transitional housing of RAE, the non-profit agency which he co-founded in 2007. He is actively participating in the mission of Voices of Innocence and Resurrection after Exoneration. He says that he is no longer angry, but he continues instilling anger and drive in others through sharing his story. He has developed a business plan for Beacon Industries, a print shop located in the RAE House and has put that plan into action, running a start-up business. “It’s a lot of work. I have a real strong belief in God. I joined church. This is the most peaceful my life has ever been. I know that there is something here I’m connected to! I’m not trippin’ off the material stuff. I’m on the right path and I know it, because God keeps placing people on that path to facilitate my journey.”

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