Imprisoned nearly half his life and then arrested 4 months after release, a young man is convicted of murder
Shaquille Brown, who was arrested on murder charges four months after leaving prison in 2017, was found guilty Monday, a conviction that will probably return him to prison for the rest of his life.
A Suffolk jury convicted Brown, 24, of killing Christopher Austin, a 20-year-old baggage handler who was shot in the head on a Dorchester street on June 28, 2017, on his way to work at Logan Airport.
Brown looked stunned and hugged one of his lawyers, Lisa Newman-Polk, tightly as the forewoman said “guilty” to charges of first-degree murder and two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm. Brown’s other attorney, Mark Bennett, hugged his client and fought back tears.
“It’s disappointing,” Bennett said following the verdict as Newman-Polk sat, sobbing, on a bench outside the courtroom.
Austin’s mother, Grace Richardson, who sat in the front row of the courtroom with Austin’s aunt and a friend, left the courtroom quickly after the verdict was read.
“No one wins here,” she said later in an interview. “I don’t want to rejoice over someone going to prison. . . . I can’t rejoice that another young person’s life is gone.”
Richardson, who spent 40 years working in early-childhood education, said the verdict was not a victory, but a reminder that more must be done to improve the lives of troubled young people in Boston.
“We’ve got to protect the community, but the community has to work to build a better world for the young people,” Richardson said. “I want people to be held accountable but this is not about winning. We can’t win until the children in our neighborhood have the resources to live successful lives. We can’t win until we stop people from shooting each other.”
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said in a statement Tuesday she hoped the verdict would provide “some comfort” to Austin’s family.
“No verdict can bring closure to the tragic loss suffered by Mr. Austin’s family,” Rollins said. “There is no celebration or victory now, only an assurance that the defendant will not hurt or harm any other members of our community.”
The Globe featured Brown in a November 2018 story that detailed his childhood, his years in juvenile custody, and his time in the adult prison system, where he spent much of his time in solitary confinement.
When he left prison, Brown had no job prospects and no strong connections to mental health or social programs to help him navigate his return.
He had come straight out of Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the state’s maximum security prison, where he had served time in a restrictive unit for inmates with diagnosed mental illness. Yet the state Department of Mental Health declined to accept him as a client, saying he did not qualify for services.
He reluctantly moved to Boston, where he feared gang rivals would target him.
But prosecutors said Brown targeted Austin as he was leaving a bodega on Ashmont Street the morning of June 28, 2017. No motive was given for the killing of Austin, who had no gang ties and no criminal background.
Austin lived a quiet life with his mother in Dorchester, where he composed music on his computer.
There was no physical evidence tying Brown to the killing. Police found no murder weapon or bullets, and pants that investigators believed Brown wore on the day of the murder tested negative for gunshot residue.
But video footage from the bodega placed Brown at the scene and showed him looking at Austin as he came out of the store after buying some candy.
One witness said he saw a man with a chipped tooth approach Austin minutes later on the street. That witness and another man testified that after the shooting, they saw a man with a chipped tooth flee the scene. Brown has a chipped tooth.
Suffolk Assistant District Attorney David Bradley also pointed to a .38 caliber revolver found in Brown’s mother’s apartment and full-metal-jacket bullets that were found in Brown’s girlfriend’s purse. Neither the weapon nor the bullets were connected to the murder, but Bradley said they amounted to “little pieces of coincidences” that provided enough evidence for a conviction.
“You have all the evidence to find him guilty,” Bradley told the jury during closing arguments last week.
During his closing argument, Bennett described the evidence as thin and said investigators zeroed in on Brown without looking at other potential suspects.
“He’s got a chipped tooth, perfect!” Bennett said. “Like a chipped tooth is something rare.”
The case began with two defendants: Brown and Keith Cousin, who had been charged with murder under the theory of joint venture because he drove Brown to the bodega that morning in a blue Honda.
But by the end of the seven-day trial, Judge Michael D. Ricciuti decided that prosecutors had failed to meet their burden of proof against Cousin, 32, who had come to Boston from Georgia that summer to celebrate his mother’s birthday.
Ricciuti found Cousin not guilty on May 30, the day before the jury began deliberations.
The highly unusual decision was made on the basis that prosecutors had failed to prove that Cousin shared the intent to kill Austin, according to Cousin’s lawyer, Christopher Belezos.
In September 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that defendants in fatal crimes who did not commit the actual killing could not be convicted of first-degree murder unless prosecutors could prove they set out to kill the victim or knew their actions would have fatal consequences.
Before that ruling, a defendant who acted as a getaway driver or provided weapons could be convicted of murder even if prosecutors did not establish the defendant intended for anyone to die.
Surveillance footage from the bodega showed Cousin and Brown together in the Honda before the shooting. But footage after the shooting showed there was no passenger in Cousin’s car, Belezos said. Video showed Cousin driving away at a normal rate of speed, he said.
“It was a pretty thin case against him all along,” Belezos said. “It’s unfortunate it went as far as it did.”
Cousin, who had a job digging graves for veterans before his arrest, was grateful for the judge’s decision, Belezos said. Cousin’s mother, who was in the courtroom when the judge rendered the decision, wept with relief.