Dead Teen Walking

The U.S. is one of the few nations that put juveniles on death row. Shareef Cousin is one of them. He may be innocent

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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

Shareef Cousin, convicted murderer, has a cartoon figure tattooed on his left forearm. It's one of those blurry prison deals, done quick, dirty and cheap. He's not certain if it's Beavis or Butt-head. In any case, it's one of his last emblems of fleeting youth. In 1996 Cousin was sentenced to death for the murder of 25-year-old Michael Gerardi in a 1995 street robbery in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Cousin was only 16 years old when he was convicted and sentenced, making him one of the youngest condemned convicts in the U.S.

Cousin, who is black, is 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. "What that tells me," says Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, "is that while we as a society are willing to give second chances to white children, that understanding gets lost when it comes to black or Latino kids."

Cousin has been in jail for more than two years, and a few weeks ago, he marked his 19th birthday behind bars. He had little to celebrate. He's on death row at Louisiana State Prison at Angola, a former plantation turned high-security prison that was made infamous by the movie Dead Man Walking. Cousin's cell is small and stark, with cement floors, a metal sleeping bunk and a squat, steel toilet. He is locked in his cell 23 hours a day, with a one-hour break to exercise or use the telephone. Meals are pushed through a slot in the door: breakfast at 5:30 a.m., lunch at 10:30 a.m., dinner at 3:30 p.m. The air is usually heavy and hot and stirred by large fans in the hallway. The days drag like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. "Sometimes I feel like I'm just sitting in there deteriorating," says Cousin. "Just slowly evaporating."

Cousin says he is innocent, and in December his lawyers began arguing his appeal before the Louisiana State Supreme Court, which is expected to make a ruling in early February. If Cousin's appeal fails, his ultimate destination is a one-story execution building five miles away. There, on a white metal table with outstretched armrests, on a yet-to-be-determined day at a yet-to-be-determined hour, he will be strapped down and injected with three drugs. The first shot of sodium thiopental will bring on unconsciousness. The second drug, pancuronium bromide, will paralyze his body functions. And the last drug, potassium chloride, will stop his heart. "The years 15 to 18 are when you should learn most of the things about life," says Cousin. "Right now, being here, I know more about the justice system than I do about life."


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