Getting Off Death Row Shareef Cousin was sentenced to death in 1995 at the age of 16 for a crime he didn't commit. Now he is off death row, and his murder charge has been dropped. Cousin talks about his conviction and his experience on death row.

Getting Off Death Row

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This week the PBS series "Independent Lens" features a documentary called "Race to Execution." The film focuses on the role of racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty. As part of the project, the National Black Programming Consortium held a Podcast competition. They invited college students to submit their takes on this issue, which is how they met a 28-year-old Morehouse college student with a unique perspective.

Shareef Cousin was 16 years old when he was arrested and charged with the murder of 25-year-old Michael Gerardi in New Orleans. As he explained on his Podcast, Shareef had what seemed like an airtight alibi.

Mr. SHAREEF COUSIN (Former Death Row Inmate): You know, I was in jail for three months before I found out that I was at a basketball game at the time of the murder. I didn't know I was at a basketball game at the night of the murder happened. I just know I didn't do it.

CONAN: Nevertheless, a jury convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death. In 1996, Shareef Cousin became the youngest person on death row. Two and a half years later, his conviction was overturned. He'll tell you how that happened.

Former death row inmate Shareef Cousin joins us now from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. And it's good of you to be with us today.

Mr. COUSIN: It's good to be here.

CONAN: It was mentioned you seemed to have an airtight alibi. It evaporated in court. How did that happen?

Mr. COUSIN: Well, first, what I have to think about is - why does the murder occur? This murdered occurred in the French Quarters of New Orleans. And when you think about the French Quarters, you know, we think about tourism. We think about, you know, this is how New Orleans make their money, you know, Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras. And if a crime happens in this part of the town, someone has to go down for this crime and someone has to go down fast for this crime.

And since the hurricane, you know, New Orleans has been, you know, in a forefront with the politics, you know, with the dirty, corrupt police, with the, you know, with DAs, the prosecutors, with the politicians. You know, everybody's beginning to know about these situations. And with my case, you know I was at a basketball game.

And when you're 16 years old, you're playing basketball - if 25. You know, if you're in a game and a murder occurred, you know, it's not like, oh, I remember where I was three days ago at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. You know, you're not going to remember that. It's not like we walk throughout the day, everyday we're writing down everything we do. And, you know, I found out I was at a basketball game, who had a videotape of the basketball game.

CONAN: With a time stamp on it. So people knew when it happened.

Mr. COUSIN: Right. And I had teammates that could have come to trial to testify that hey, Shareef was in this game and I had two other teammates that could have testified what my coach that said that, hey, Shareef was in a car when the coach dropped me off first. Shareef was in the car when the coach drives me off, and the kid was second. Shareef was in the car and I got dropped off before Shareef - he was the last one in the car with the coach. So to the, sort of, average layperson who can get arrested for a crime with this type of evidence.

CONAN: We're speaking with Shareef Cousin, who was sentenced to death at the age of 16 for a crime he didn't commit. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So when the evidence was doctored, when your witnesses were disappeared across the street and went there to testify and when you were then convicted, how - what did you feel like?

Mr. COUSIN: At that time - I was 16 at that time and when that happened, when I was in court and the jury came back and said guilty. And after few days later when the jury came back and say we will send this man to die for this crime, at that time I thought about, how could this happen? I thought about why me? You know, I thought about, you know, sometimes you hear the term, I'll see my life my life flash before my eyes. You know, people kind of see it out of context. But I actually saw my life flash before my eyes.

And, you know, at that time, I didn't - I really didn't know anything about the system. I didn't know how the system works. You know, I didn't know an appeal process. You know, I thought that once a person is sentenced to death, they die tomorrow, or the next day, or the next week. You know, so at that time, you know, I'm beginning to think about me dying.

CONAN: And you were then sent to one of the most notorious prisons in the country - to Angola.

Mr. COUSIN: Yeah, I was sent to Angola at 16. At that time, I was the youngest person on death row at that time in America, and I was sent to Angola.

CONAN: And when you learned more talking with the other men who were there. Nevertheless, that's got to be a dreadful place.

Mr. COUSIN: Yeah, it's a dreadful place. And being 16, and being 17, and actually witness an execution, you know, where a guy you've talked to, you know, everyday for months. And, you know, one day, you know, tomorrow he's like, you know, you know are dying tomorrow. You know, I just want to leave him with a few words. You know, I'm talking about an unhealthy man. You know, that was a reality check.

And because I know my situation when I - you know, with evidence that I didn't do this crime. You know, then it's hard to even judge another person on death row, or in prison, period, because you don't know the circumstances of the situation.

CONAN: Yeah. I've read that when you were told the news that in fact you're conviction was overturned, and you weren't going to be executed, that you've felt you needed to be restrained in your joy. You had to be feeling joy, but you couldn't shout out and jump up for joy because - because why?

Mr. COUSIN: Well, because there was another guy on death row who's - who lived may be three cells away from me. And he received word the same day that his case was not overturned. His case actually upheld. And because I didn't want to, you know, jump up and down for joy, knowing that another guy who I've been talking to for years, you know, cannot feel the same joy. You know, so out of respect, I just, you know, I remained calm. But inside, I was so jubilant in the inside, but I remained calm on the outside.

CONAN: Your ordeal was not over. You had pled guilty in the course of this to some robbery charges. And you still had some time to serve on that. But eventually, you were released. Through all of these, were you angry? You must have been furious.

Mr. COUSIN: At first, I was real furious. I was hurt for one. Because, like I said, I was 16. My family didn't know a thing about the system. And when I was arrested for that murder, there was one guy who called it into the radios, to the news station and said, I remember this guy. This guy robbed me. And at that time, I had gold teeth in my mouth. And - but when this had - guy had gotten robbed, I didn't have gold teeth on my mouth at the time he had gotten robbed. But the judge told my lawyer that, hey, if he doesn't plead guilty, you know, I'm going to take him to trial, and if the jury comes back with a guilty verdict, I'm going to give him 50 years in prison.

And so, coming from death row, I still having to do more time, you know, for a charge that I could've fought. You know, that was a big, you know, emotional unbalance a little a bit. But…

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left. You're now a student, a college student, have you come to terms with what happened to you? Are you looking forward to your future?

Mr. COUSIN: Yeah. I'm in college. I go to Morehouse. And, you know, I have plans on going on and becoming an attorney. Where I can actually go back and help some of the guys that I've left behind. And I'm also a community organizer. And one thing that I've been working on really hard lately, I work for an organization called, Fairness for Prisoners' Families, where I help family members who have loved ones incarcerated. We organize them and we begin (unintelligible) as the system.

But there's - well, you know, we've heard the Million Man March, we've heard the Million Women March. And we've heard about the March on Washington on '63. You know, actually, for the United States Social Forum coming to Atlanta this summer, we're looking for 20,000 to 30,000 people to come together. But we'll also let them have a family reunion of ex-felons and family members. It's going to be the first time this ever happened in this country. So I'm looking forward to that.

CONAN: Shareef Cousin, thank you very much. As we mentioned, his Podcast is part of a competition funded by the National Black Consortium, where college students can submit their take on the death penalty. You can download Shareef Cousin's Podcast at their Web site, there's a link in our Web site

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