Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Meet the Exonerated: Louisiana's Death Row Part Two

Shareef Cousin was only 16 years old when he was convicted and 17-years old when he was sentenced to death, making him one of the youngest condemned convicts in the U.S. At the time of his sentence he was one of 63 juvenile offenders on death row in prisons around the U.S. Two-thirds of this group are minorities, and two-thirds of their alleged victims were white.

Without a shred of physical evidence, Shareef was convicted of the murder of 25-year-old Michael Gerardi that occurred during a 1995 street robbery in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Gerardi was on a date with Connie Babin on the evening of the murder.

When questioned on the night of the murder, Babin told the police that she did not get a good look at the gunman and probably would not be able to identify him. Babin further stated, in an interview at her house three days later, that she was not wearing her glasses or contact lenses on the night of the murder and could only see patterns and shapes. She described the murderer only as a black male in his late teens, five feet seven or eight inches tall, with curly hair and "old man's face," and wearing colorful socks. Three weeks later, however, Babin positively identified defendant as the gunman from a photographic lineup. The eyewitness testimony by Babin was an important factor in the trial. Babin told the jury she was “absolutely positive” that she had seen Cousin commit the murder despite the fact that Cousin is 4 inches taller.

Detective Anthony Small also listed two additional witnesses that supposedly "positively" identified Shareef as the murderer, but they were never called to testify. It was later found out that the detective had lied to get the warrant.

Cousin had a taped statement given by his basketball coach establishing his alibi, but the prosecution altered the time given on the tape. Three teammates who waited outside the courtroom to testify were not available when the defense attorney went to call them. The defense found out too late that prosecutors had relocated the boys to the DA's air-conditioned office, supposedly to give them relief from the hot weather.

After the murder conviction was overturned and charges were dropped, Cousin remained imprisoned because of a plea bargain he made on minor charges at a time when he felt his future was hopeless. one of Cousin's co-defendant's in an unrelated armed robbery, James Rowell, was called to testify against Cousin. The prosecutor, Roger Jordan, called that Rowell had given a statement to detectives that Cousin had bragged about the murder of Gerardi. However, when Rowell took the stand, he testified that he did not make that statement; rather he, Roger Jordan, told him to get on the stand and say that Cousin bragged to him about a murder. In return, Jordan would give him a deal on his charges.

The case was reversed by the State Supreme Court because of the use of Rowell's statement by the prosecution at trial. The Supreme Court held it was an error for the prosecution to use the statement of Rowell as substantive evidence of guilt when it was actually impeachment testimony. Also, the Court made reference to prosecutorial misconduct by Roger Jordan for withholding exculpatory evidence.

For some reason, I've sat here and prayed to the Lord for answers on why this is happening. Since Miss Babin took the stand, I knew I was gonna get found guilty. Down in my heart, I truly believe that the Gerardi family knew I didn't do it, and I know I didn't do it, the Lord knows, y'all know, my defense team knows, the State knows, and everyone else. But that's not the answer. We will never get an answer as to why this is happening to us. But as I write this letter to you, I did not and will not shed a tear. So please don't cry for me or over me. I must go because the Lord awaits me."

--Shareef Cousin, in a letter to his family during jury deliberations at his murder trial
On September 18, 2007, Shareef Cousin was released on parole and currently works at the Southern Center for Human Rights .

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