Legislation to abolish La.’s death penalty prompted emotional testimony

Published: May. 24, 2023 at 9:23 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A bill to abolish Louisiana’s death penalty elicited passionate debate at the state capitol on Wednesday (May 24).

Shareef Cousin, a man who was sentenced to death row in Louisiana as a teenager spoke in favor of doing away with execution.

“My name is Shareef Cousin. I’m number 77 and that’s the 77th person to be exonerated from death row in America. At the tender age of 16, I was sentenced to death in Louisiana, in New Orleans for a crime I didn’t commit, so I come before you from a different perspective, from a perspective of being that person that was almost executed for a crime I didn’t commit,” said Cousin.

Cousin was sentenced to death and sent to Angola State Penitentiary for the 1995 murder of Michael Gerardi who was killed outside a French Quarter restaurant.

But in 1998, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Cousin maintained all along he did not kill Gerardi.

As the House Criminal Justice Committee weighed HB 228 by Rep. Kyle Green, D-Marrero, Cousin was among the members of the public to give testimony.

“Committee, I have seven kids under the age of 16. Had I been executed I would not see none of their beautiful faces. I come before to ask that you abolish the death penalty and I’m going to keep asking that until anyone can demonstrate to me the infallibility of human judgment.” Green said the crime problem is not lost on him but the death penalty is not the solution.

“Don’t think for one second that my family has not been touched by crime or murder,” said Green.

On the legislative session’s opening day, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, urged lawmakers to abolish Louisiana’s death penalty and expressed support for Green’s bill.

“We’ve shown that the state gets it wrong more times than not. There’s a likelihood that there’s a person currently on death row who is probably innocent of the crime they were convicted of.”

But death penalty supporters also had their turn at the witness table.

West Baton Rouge Parish D.A. Tony Clayton expressed his support for the death penalty.

“I believe that if you go and you kill someone then you are justifiably, you deserve the death penalty,” said Clayton.

Wayne Guzzardo spoke of losing his daughter who was killed while working at a Baton Rouge restaurant.

“My daughter was murdered in 1995,” said Guzzardo.” At 9:47 on a Sunday morning.”

John Sinquefield, chief deputy attorney general, also said the death penalty is needed in Louisiana.

“All of the states in the Deep South have the death penalty, if we are the only state in the Deep South that abolishes the death penalty we are going to become a magnet,” he said.

There were also arguments about whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent to crime/

“They know, the defendants know because they’ve told me it deters them from killing police officers and children,” said Clayton.

But Green pushed back on that notion at the end of the meeting.

“If the death penalty was such a deterrent, then we would be the safest state in the current and we’re not,” he said.

After the hours-long discussion, the House committee voted 11 to 4 against the bill.

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