In 1996, Shareef Cousin was 16 years old when he was sentenced to death for the alleged murder of Michael Gerardi in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was not until 1999, after spending four years of his youth on death row, Cousin was exonerated of all charges.
“When I tell my story, I don’t like to say I was ‘exonerated from evidence’ or ‘wrongfully convicted,’ I was framed . . . everyone knew they had the wrong person,” Cousin told a captivated audience as he recounted the series of events that led to his conviction.
Following the murder, three men had been seen fleeing the scene and getting into a car identified by an eyewitness, Cousin said. Those men were questioned and released even though they had no alibis. Instead, the detective on Cousin’s case called in an “anonymous tip” to the police to identify Cousin as the assailant.
At trial, the key witness was the girlfriend of the victim who witnessed the murder, and although she initially said she could not identify the assailant, “positively” identified Cousin at trial. Most startling, however, was that there was videotape evidence of Cousin playing in an organized basketball game during the time of the murder. The key witnesses at that event, Cousin’s teammates and members of the opposing team, mysteriously could not be found when they were called to the witness stand to testify on Cousin’s behalf. It was later discovered that the prosecuting attorney had locked them away in his office when they were meant to be in court.
Cousin’s story is one of a stolen childhood, betrayal, suffering but, most importantly, as Cousin conveys, the story of a broken system, a system that will produce more stories like his unless the death penalty is abolished, he said. Referring to the disproportionate number of black men sentenced to death, capital punishment is a funny term, Cousin said, because, in most cases, “it is those without the capital that get the punishment.” Unfortunately, Cousin argued, race is one of many issues in most death penalty because the system is flawed. The only solution to prevent further injustices like Cousin’s is to abolish the capital punishment system completely, Cousin argued. This is why he travels the country to tell his story and how he reconciles his horrific past with a hopeful future, he said.
Cousin charged those law students in the audience to “help carry [his] torch” to abolish a flawed system. “Don’t be lazy intellectuals,” Cousin demanded. Be proactive and fight for this cause, Cousin urged the students.
Cousin is a member of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people.
Cousin’s presentation rounded out Diversity Week at the law school. Throughout Diversity week student organizations celebrate diversity across the legal profession and within the Philadelphia bar during through a series of events surrounding issues of race, diversity and the law.
Following Cousin’s talk, the law school’s Assistant Dean, Mary McGovern, was honored for her contribution to organizing events that celebrate diversity and empowering students to do the same.