Life After Exoneration, For The Victims On Both Sides
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. In the summer of 2002, Brian Banks was a promising high school football player with a verbal agreement to play college ball on a scholarship at USC. But when another student accused him of rape, that all changed.
He was arrested, charged, and then facing a potential term of 41 years to life, he accepted a plea bargain and served five years behind bars. But then his accuser admitted she lied about the rape, and Banks was exonerated. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Falcons signed him to play professional football.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Banks is one of more than 1,000 individuals exonerated in the U.S. After a wrongful conviction, the lives of both the accused and the victim of the original crime are permanently altered.
So if you or someone else you know was exonerated, or if you were the victim of a crime in a case that's resulted in exoneration, we want to hear from you. Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just go to our website, npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION to join our conversation here.
Later on in the program we're going to explain what bitcoins are and how they work, but first, Shareef Cousin was served on death row at the age of 16 for a murder he did not commit. He served several years in Louisiana's Angola prison before he was exonerated. And he joins us now by smartphone from New Orleans. Welcome back to the program, Shareef.
SHAREEF COUSIN: Thank you.
HEADLEE: So going back - I mean I certainly don't want to take you back to a traumatic period, but tell us how one could possibly end up on death row if you didn't commit the crime. How does that happen?
COUSIN: Well, I think it is several factors. I think the most important factor that we cannot turn a blind eye to is that - the character of race, especially here in New Orleans. Anytime that there is a white victim who is murdered, it is more than likely that whoever is convicted of murdering that white victim is going to be sentenced to death. They're going to seek the death penalty in more than a majority of those cases.
In my case, we talk about the French Quarters of New Orleans because that's where my murder happened at. Anytime that there is a murder in the French Quarters, let alone if it's a white person that's been murdered by a black perpetrator, then someone is going down for that crime, and someone is going down for that crime fast.
We're talking about a murder that happened over 18 years ago. I was 16 at the time of that crime. And a lot of times we hear the city, not just New Orleans but a lot of the big cities, they want to find things to have all the kids doing to keep them off the streets.
Here in New Orleans we have this what you call midnight basketball, that is from the New Orleans Recreation Department. Well, at that time I was playing basketball for the New Orleans Recreation Department at the time this crime happened. Unfortunately, it was a high-profile crime and someone had to go down for this crime fast.
And in my case, not only was I at a basketball game, but the game was even on videotape. We have a videotape of the game.
HEADLEE: Yeah, and it was your coach, as I understand, that actually drove you home at the time the crime was being committed. And you know, today we really want to talk about your life now, about what happens after one is exonerated because, you know, it's not like the happy ending of a movie, the lights dim and then everything's great, right? I mean, what is it like to have to put your life back together again?
COUSIN: I think that in my case, in my situation, I was very fortunate because I had a support system initially. One my attorneys that represented me had taken a more personal approach to help me rebuild my life. So when I came home, I had a support system where I was able to live with one of my attorneys for over six months.
She was able to - her and her husband was able to help me get into college, help me find employment, just some of the basic things that helped me get my life together. But I'm only one out of nine that have been exonerated from death row here in Louisiana. And I can't say the same for all nine of us.
We have, when you come home, just like you've been at war. If you're a veteran in the armed services, when you are at war, you are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. And I think the country has all agreed to that. And so when a person's coming from war, our country makes sure that that person gets the proper counseling, the proper mental health treatment at the least to help that person to reintegrate back.
When you're coming home from prison, especially wrongfully incarcerated, we're not getting that same treatment. So is that like some guys have turned to drugs, alcohol, homelessness. It's a wide range of factors that takes place on an individual when he's coming home. So I think that's one of the biggest things that we face coming home is mental health treatment.
HEADLEE: We're speaking with Shareef Cousin, who was sentenced to death at the age of 16 for a crime he did not commit. He served several years on death row before his conviction was overturned. You know, there are - over half of the American states have some form of compensation available for people who have been wrongfully convicted. That of course means there's many states that do not. Did you receive any restitution?
COUSIN: Well, when I was first released, Louisiana was one of many states that didn't have a compensation law in place. So a lot of us were coming home without compensation. It was only like 2008, 2009 that the state began to compensate the wrongfully convicted for being on death row. At this time the max compensation was only $150,000 for a 10-year span.
It was only last year that our legislature has upped the ante to give us $250,000 for a 10-year span. But we have some guys that have spent 25 and 30 years in prison before they were exonerated, and the state is saying that your life is only worth $250,000 for a max of 10 years, which equals to $25,000 a year at a rate of $12 an hour.
So when we talk about compensation, I have say that because - so I'm going to say no that we don't have the proper compensation. $12 an hour? And so now I bring that back to what I was saying the first time, to race. You know, a lot of - the majority of our guys that have been exonerated here in Louisiana have been black men. So we have $12 an hour for a maximum of 10 years that were spending 30 years in prison.
So I guess our legislature is saying that, well, you're a black man. For 20 years, you probably wouldn't have been employed, anyway. So there's a big problem with compensation here in Louisiana.
HEADLEE: We're taking...
COUSIN: And to answer the question, I wasn't compensated.
HEADLEE: OK, well, we're also getting phone calls from those of you out there listening. If you've been exonerated, or you're close to someone who has, we'd love to hear from you on the - getting back to life once you have been exonerated. And we have a call now from John(ph) in San Francisco, California. John, were you exonerated for a crime you did not commit?
JOHN: Yes, that's correct. I was exonerated. Mine was a theft case, and I served four years, eight days and - excuse me, four years, eight months and eight days on a six-year sentence. Long story short, I never had any prior arrests or convictions, not even a parking ticket or speeding ticket, college-educated white male, never involved in any kind of drugs or illegal activity.
And this was a theft case. A girlfriend who was sexually involved with the deputy district attorney, who I believe was jealous, got her to allege a theft that never occurred. And long story short, I served every day of the six-year sentence less the earned time because when I went up for parole, the parole board is not interested in hearing anybody claim that they're innocent.
And I was in a state penitentiary, and I can tell you that the vast majority of the people that I served time with admitted their crime. It's actually not true that all inmates claim innocence. Actually, that was not my experience. In all the facilities that I was housed at, I only met one or two people who ever claimed that they were factually innocent.
And so the parole board denied me three years in a row, even though I was never required to take any type of classes, like I said college-educated, homeowner, financially stable, professional person. So I had to serve every single day of my sentence until I was released on mandatory parole.
And later I was exonerated by the appellate court. The state appealed it to the state supreme court, and the state supreme court refused to hear the case, and they upheld the decision of the lower court.
HEADLEE: Well let me ask you, John, our focus today is on life after exoneration.
JOHN: Well, it's difficult because I've got a four year, eight month and eight day gap, roughly five years, that's hard to explain where I was during that time frame on a resume, for example. And because everything is the Internet, and the Internet catches up with you, you know, there are some newspaper articles about it back then when I was convicted.
And unfortunately no one goes behind, you know, these exonerations and cleans up the Internet from all the negative publicity back then. And so I was actually terminated from one of my employments because an employer found out about something, even though when I applied I answered the question truthfully because once you've been exonerated, you may answer the question have you ever been convicted of a crime, you may answer that no truthfully, even though technically I was by a jury, and it was later overturned.
JOHN: So the other thing I found, you know, I'll take the comments off-air, is that even though this occurred, you know, literally 15, 18 years ago in my life, people still don't believe you. There's a cop mentality out there. There's a lot of district attorneys, deputy district attorneys, police officers that once you've been charged that they will not apologize after you've been found innocent.
HEADLEE: No, that's pretty common. John...
JOHN: They don't want to make it right.
HEADLEE: That's John calling from San Francisco, California. Thank you so much for your call. And I want to bring in, right before we take a break, and then we'll continue the conversation, Sam Gross, who is a professor of law at the University of Michigan and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. Sam, what we're hearing both from that caller, John, and from Shareef is that we - the system doesn't seem to be set up to help people who've been exonerated, although it helps people, as Shareef mentions, who actually did the crime. It doesn't seem to help those who were exonerated.
SAMUEL GROSS: Well, I'm not sure how good it is at helping people who have committed crimes, but it certainly is not good at helping people who have been exonerated. One of the ironies of the system for some people who are exonerated is that services that are available to people who have served their time and been released on parole are not available to people who have had charges dismissed because they weren't guilty in the first place.
HEADLEE: All right, we're going to continue this conversation after a break. If you or someone else you're close to was exonerated, or if you were the victim in a case that resulted in exoneration, give us a call. We want to hear your story at 800-989-8255. Or send an email to email@example.com. We'll be back after a short break.
We can say that National Public Radio has confirmed two explosions from the site of the Boston Marathon. That is all that we know right now. We'll have more news and details on that story as it develops on NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. And again, let me reiterate NPR has confirmed two explosions at the site of the Boston Marathon. That, at this moment, is all that we know. We will have more details for you on that story as it develops from NPR News.
But right now we're talking about life after exoneration. Larry Peterson served nearly 18 years for murder and rape, convicted before DNA testing. He was in his mid-50s when he was freed. And he told NPR's Robert Siegel he had prime years of his life taken away from him.
LARRY PETERSON: My children are grown, no chance of putting the marriage back together. I have to come out here and play catch-up out here in this world with all the modern technology. I'm lost when it comes to jobs today. You walk in, you use a computer to place an application. All of these things I have to learn.
HEADLEE: But the wrongfully convicted aren't the only ones whose lives change when the justice system fails. So if you or someone you know was exonerated, or if you were the victim in a case that resulted in exoneration, we want to hear your story, 800-989-8255. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can go to the website, npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest, Shareef Cousin, served in Angola prison before his conviction was overturned. And joining us now is Jennifer Thompson. In July of 1984, she was raped at knifepoint in her home. Out of a police lineup she identified a man named Ronald Cotton as her attacker. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years before DNA evidence showed he wasn't the rapist. Jennifer Thompson joins us now from member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Welcome, Jennifer.
JENNIFER THOMPSON: Thank you.
HEADLEE: So what we're talking about is what happens after the exoneration. And I wonder what that moment was like for you when you were finally convinced it was not Ronald Cotton that did it.
THOMPSON: You know, I've really had a hard time coming up with words to describe that particular moment. And actually a lot of my memory of that moment is kind of lost, and it's almost like being swallowed in some kind of black hole because you - for 11 years, you know, you've known you were right. You've seen this certain image in your head.
I knew how to be a victim of sexual violence, like I knew how to do that. I mean, I had been that for 11 years. And then all of the sudden you're wrong. And now I became an offender, and I was guilty of that. And whether it was not malicious or intentional, it really didn't matter. I mean, it was still the same 11 years of Ronald's life were gone.
And so the guilt and the shame were paralyzing, debilitating and then fear. I mean, fear set in, and it just took a hold of me, and, you know, terrified that at any minute he was going to spring up behind any dark corner and want to set the record straight and, you know, hurt me or take something away from me.
We had both been the same age when I was raped and when he went into prison. And now he's walking out at 33, and I was 33. And so the reality was I knew what he had missed. And it didn't matter what we gave him or anything. You can't get back the years. And I knew that. And I just absolutely was convinced that he hated me because of it.
HEADLEE: And you spent a very long time not wanting to interact with him for that reason. But when you did finally speak to him face to face, what was that like?
THOMPSON: Well, it took about two years. You know, I had asked people, you know, what I should do, and people, you know, would kind of look at you and say, you know, he probably did something he never got caught for, you know, he's probably a bad guy. And so, you know, you somehow can, like, assuage your guilt by people telling you this.
And then, you know, the reality was I knew that I had to see this man. So it took two years, and we met in a small church not far from where I'd been raped 13 years before. And as soon as he walked in that room, and I just started to cry, he immediately gave me forgiveness. And it was the first time, truly, in 13 years that physically I could feel myself starting to heal.
And oddly enough, it would be the one person that I had learned to hate so much during that time that would teach me about grace and mercy, and it was the most amazing - outside of the birth of my children, it was the most amazing experience of my life, and, you know, we really talked about what had happened during those years and how we both had become victims of the system when it fails and both, you know, victims of Bobby Poole(ph), the man who had raped me.
And so when we start talking about, you know, victims in the system and when the system fails, I mean, the pool of victims is absolutely enormous, the people that get damaged.
HEADLEE: And there's also this knowledge, Jennifer, that, I mean, maybe you - I'm completely guessing here, but perhaps there was some measure of comfort to be taken, but the perpetrator of your own rape was behind bars. Now that's not true.
THOMPSON: There is that comfort, you know, for you as the victim. Now I have to say that this is kind of a strange kind of like, you know, what your first interviewer said, that you're the lucky one. And I was kind of lucky in the sense that the DNA test that exonerated Ronald Cotton also became a cold hit on Bobby Poole. So we did know who did it.
And we were very fortunate, too, that he was in prison at the time. Ronald Cotton was the one who really discovered it was Bobby Poole. And so Bobby Poole has died in prison. But this is a really important, you know, something to understand is that we had left Bobby Poole out on the streets for another six months after Ronald had been, originally arrested.
And Bobby Poole went on to commit many more rapes during that time. And so when - that's why when I talk about the victims, you know, that get caught up in this, it's just really large, and so every time we have an innocent person in prison, we have a guilty person not. And that's something that's really important for the listeners to understand and why getting this stuff right is imperative on lots of different levels.
HEADLEE: That's Jennifer Thompson, and we're taking calls and stories from those of you out here who've experienced either side, any side of this particular thing. Nick(ph) is calling us now from Fort Collins, Colorado. Nick, you yourself or someone that you were close to has been exonerated?
NICK: Yeah, absolutely. My father, Frank O'Connell(ph) spent 27 years in California prison for first degree murder, which he was eventually exonerated April 21 of last year.
HEADLEE: He was in prison for 27 years and then exonerated. And you were how old when he went into prison?
HEADLEE: Four years old, holy cow. So you missed most of your childhood with your dad.
NICK: Yeah, he missed all my childhood. We did a really good job of trying to maintain contact as well as we could given the circumstances. So it wasn't until I was about 18, and I could visit without restriction, being that I had to have a notarized form from the legal guardian prior to that, that we really were able to, you know, strengthen our relationship and spend as much as we needed in the visiting rooms. But yeah, it was different circumstances.
HEADLEE: So Nick, you know, our focus today is really about life after exoneration, after supposedly the happy ending. What has that been like for you and your dad?
NICK: Well, I will say it's kind of - there's a lot of challenges that come along with it. On the one hand, absolutely you are ecstatic for the release. You're ecstatic for your freedom. And in the beginning months, there's a lot of excitement, and it's just a big whirlwind. And that starts to wear down.
We're getting to the point where we just - we're getting into almost a year since he's been released, and after the initial publicity and the excitement of the release wears down, and you start to get back to a little bit of a normal life, there's certainly challenges that face him still. And it becomes pretty apparent that to have a support system in place for these exonerees when they are released is imperative because essentially what the state does is when they release them, they provide them zero resources, zero support, and they're generally still fighting it. On many, many cases, they're still fighting and contending that the person's guilty even though it's been demonstrated and ruled in a court of law that they weren't fairly convicted in the first place.
So essentially they're homeless unless family, friends or the organizations that have worked to free them provide such support.
HEADLEE: That's Nick calling from Fort Collins, Colorado. Nick, thank you so much for your call. Yeah. Sam Gross, go ahead.
COUSIN: Can I add something?
HEADLEE: Uh-huh. Shareef, is that you speaking?
COUSIN: Yeah. What I want to say is that like the re-entry experience for exonerees, they mirror the same struggles and challenges faced by those that are parolees. You know, like all formerly incarcerated individuals, you know, even exonerees are alienated from traditional sources of help and support.
You know, like many other trauma survivors, you know, even exonerees have a tendency to isolate themselves, you know, and we begin to avoid experiences that might remind us of the pain that we had to endure.
HEADLEE: Oh, yeah.
COUSIN: And, you know, just being wrongfully convicted, you know, when we do win our freedom, you know, often time not only are we penniless, not only do we find ourselves unemployable and dependent on others, but we even experience family friction. We experience poverty. We experience depression, just like other individuals returning home from their prison sentences. You know, this is a combination for disaster.
COUSIN: You know, some exonerees and formerly incarcerated, you know, result in homelessness, you know, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, societal alienation and even going back to prison in some cases. And so a lot of times when we look at exonerees, you know, we don't take into the total picture that not only are we wrongfully incarcerated, but we're also formerly incarcerated individuals.
You know, there is like a - there is like almost no distinction. We think that when you're exonerated, you do go home, that that's the end of your life. No. That's only the beginning of your life. And in a lot of situations, not only there's no support for exonerees, the wrongfully convicted, there are no support systems established for just formerly incarcerated.
COUSIN: So, you know, there's really no separation in this area right here.
HEADLEE: That's Shareef Cousin, who was sentenced to death at the age of 16 for a crime he did not commit. Sam Gross, let me take this to you, professor of law at the University of Michigan. You run the - or edit the National Registry of Exonerations, which catalogs known exonerations, and you've done it since 1989. How many exonerated people are there currently living in the U.S.?
GROSS: Well, I actually haven't done it since 1989.
HEADLEE: Oh, I see.
GROSS: The registry covers exonerations that occurred since 1989. The registry has only been in existence for almost a year now, and our purpose is to try to collect and make available information on as many exonerations as we can.
We - I am familiar with the story of Mr. O'Connell's father, Frank O'Connell, and it's a terribly disturbing, you know, tragic story. He didn't mention it, but part of the reason for his conviction was that the detectives who were investigating the case essentially pressured the - a witness who said he could not see who the gunman was, to say that the gunman was Nick's father.
GROSS: And that didn't become apparent until many years later. And there are many stories like that. There are probably many more than we know about. When we first released the registry in May of last year, we had 891 exonerations. As of today, it's 1,096, more than 200 more, and most of those are new cases that occurred. About 65 of them, perhaps, are cases that have occurred in that interval, maybe fewer than that.
Most of them are old cases that we're finding out about by doing more research, by publicizing our existence so people write in and tell us about cases that we didn't know about. The - one of the main purposes of creating this resource and this - and the website that we maintain is to let people know that there is a place where this information can be obtained and where they can let us know so we can begin to learn about these tragic mistakes and, with any luck, learn not to repeat them as often.
HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we're talking about life after exoneration, which includes many, many people, as Jennifer Thompson has pointed out. You just heard Sam Gross, professor of law at the University of Michigan. Jennifer Thompson actually identified a man as her rapist in 1984. That man was then exonerated 11 years later.
And, Jennifer, I wonder what would change if we did. I mean, would it be easier for you to get over what happened, to move on, if the system were better prepared to help out exonerees, if it were better prepared to help out Ronald Cotton?
THOMPSON: Oh, absolutely, because, you know, I do work with a lot of exonerees now, I also work with victims when they, you know, discover that the person that they ID'ed or the family members that, you know, they thought that killed their loved one, the guilt that they suffer and the shame that they suffer.
And it's - it truly is reopening, like, all the pain and the trauma and the hurt and the fears and everything that you thought that you had worked through. It just starts all over again. But then on top of that, the reality is that you know that you somehow, you know, were a part of taking away someone's life and their freedom and changing their families.
And so if we had something in place that we knew could assist these men and women, which is the least that we owe them - I mean, we've taken them away and locked them up and almost killed them, and God knows what else they've suffered when they were in prison, for the 10, 12, 30, 38 years that they were locked away. It's the least that we owe them.
And a lot of these men and women aren't even getting a simple apology. The system isn't even looking at them saying we recognize we've made a mistake that you were an innocent person.
HEADLEE: Well, let me take that to Shareef, did anyone in law enforcement or anyone in the criminal justice system ever say to you, Shareef, I'm sorry?
COUSIN: No. That has never happened. No, it has never happened in my situation. And I think this, you know, just the thought of that there is no "systematic approach" to help an exoneree to, you know, reintegrate by the community and get their life together are here in New Orleans. Our organization that I co-founded, Resurrection After Exoneration. We are the only organization in the state, as a matter of fact, the only organization in the world that is ran by death row exonerees and we provide basic, you know, transitional housing for the wrongfully convicted. There is no other organization in the country that's providing that service to exonerees.
COUSIN: We make sure our fellow comrades get counseling, get mentoring. You know, we thought that we have to actually help ourselves because we're going to wait on a system to do something to help us then we might as well have been executed.
HEADLEE: Ok. We're going to continue with Shareef Cousin in just a moment. Thanks to Jennifer Thompson joining us from member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Sam Gross of the University of Michigan joined us by phone from in office in Ann Arbor in Michigan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.
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HEADLEE: In the meantime, though, we continue with our conversation about life after exoneration. With us from a smartphone in New Orleans is Shareef Cousin who was sentenced to death at the age of 16 for a crime, a murder that he didn't commit. He served several years on death row in Louisiana's Angola prison. And on the line with us from Fort Belvoir in Virginia is Ellis. Ellis, you are Shareef's eldest brother, correct?
ELLIS COUSIN: Yes.
HEADLEE: And because our discussion today is about life after exoneration, what has it been like since Shareef came home?
COUSIN: Well, now it's better because he is doing, you know, doing good for himself this time around. You know? But when he first came out, you know, it's tough because, you know, like he had mentioned, he had to look to family to help him out. So, you know, every time I would get a chance, I would try to help him out financially.
HEADLEE: OK. So you would try to help financially. How long, Shareef, did it take you, do you think, to get back on your feet?
COUSIN: You know, financially it wasn't that difficult. I think, you know, a lot of our families don't be equipped to actually help us deal with some of the mental anguishes that we carry - the hurt, the anger, the, you know, the depression that we carry from being in prison for something that you did not commit. And I don't think that's a sign that's really educated on just the fact of how it affects a person.
COUSIN: So, you know, my family did help me. My family was there for me, financially, but I don't think they would've cooped to help me deal with some of the mental things that I was going through at the time.
HEADLEE: Well, let me bring that back to you, Ellis. Then what about your family. I mean, did the whole family emotionally able to cope with this or could you have used help from a professional?
COUSIN: Definitely could use help. And unlike, you know, my sister - I have a sister right now, they probably would not admit it, but she's definitely having the hardest time because she was the one who really was there with Shareef in the time he was incarcerated. She was the one responsible for the prosecutor's ADA in the case, being sanctioned for prosecutorial misconduct and, you know, so she's having the toughest time with it. But I would tell you, even me being the eldest - you know, Shareef lived with me when he was in seven or eighth grade for a while.
And so, now like his fraternal, you know, parent. And when it happened, you know, first of all, you know, I own a dry cleaner in Massachusetts and I couldn't function because, you know, I believed in him when he told me that he was innocent and actually during the death penalty phase, he asked us not to plea for his life for something he didn't do. And so no one from the family testified during the death penalty phase. So basically at the time I owned a dry cleaners in Massachusetts and basically gave that up because, you know, for me at the time, once you're served the plate of injustice, there's no really no such thing as justice. You know, there's no such thing as justice. You know? There's nothing else that's important. So it was important to me at the time to really, you know, look at saving his life.
HEADLEE: Yeah. There's victims all around in these particular cases. I want to say thank you to Ellis in Fort Belvoir, Virginia for calling in, oldest brother of Shareef Cousin. Shareef Cousin, sentenced to death at age 16. Served years on death row before his conviction was overturned and he was exonerated. Shareef joined us by smartphone from New Orleans in New Orleans. Thank you so much for speaking with us and good luck.
COUSIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.