A Louisiana man was released from death row on Friday after serving 15 years for a crime that DNA evidence shows he did not commit.
Damon Thibodeaux, 38, was the 300th prisoner nationwide to see his conviction overturned based on DNA evidence, according to lawyers who represented him from the New York-based Innocence Project. He was the 18th death row prisoner freed based on such evidence.
“This journey to freedom was a long time coming,” said one of his attorneys, Caroline Tillman of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, in a statement Friday. “The solitary conditions that Mr. Thibodeaux was forced to live under as a death row inmate were almost more than he could bear at times, but he never gave up hope that one day he would be free.”
There are 86 people on Louisiana’s death row, including two women, a corrections spokeswoman said.
Thibodeaux, a deckhand, was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to death after he confessed to the July 19, 1996, rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, in Westwego, a dozen miles southwest of New Orleans.
The girl was last seen alive by her family when she left their Westwego apartment to go to a nearby Winn-Dixie grocery store. When she failed to return home, her parents alerted police and a search ensued.
Her body was discovered the next evening under a bridge, her pants pulled down, a ligature around her neck; she appeared to have been strangled. That night, detectives began interrogating potential witnesses, including Thibodeaux.
After a lengthy interrogation, Thibodeaux confessed to raping and murdering Crystal, a confession that became the primary basis for his conviction in October 1997.
He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction in 1999, arguing that he was coerced into giving a false, unrecorded confession after being interrogated for nine hours by Jefferson Parish sheriff’s investigators. He also said that there was insufficient evidence to convict him and that he did not receive a fair trial.
“This is a tragic illustration of why law enforcement must record the entire interrogation of any witness or potential suspect in any investigation involving a serious crime,” said another of Thibodeaux’s attorneys, Steve Kaplan, of the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson & Byron. “When juries learn that the accused has apparently confessed, they invariably have a difficult time questioning the reliability and truthfulness of the confession — unless they can see the entire interrogation and determine whether it’s truthful.”
In 2007, Thibodeaux’s legal team persuaded Jefferson County Dist. Atty. Paul Connick to reinvestigate the case, and DNA testing showed that Thibodeaux was not the murderer and that the victim had not been raped.
“There is no question that Mr. Thibodeaux suffered terribly because of the faults in the criminal justice system,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, crediting the district attorney with helping speed his client’s release.
“District attorneys now recognize that the system doesn’t always get it right and many, like Dist. Atty. Connick and his team, are committed to getting to the truth. This case can serve as a model to other district attorneys around the country who are interested in developing conviction integrity units to review old cases,” he said. The case highlights the importance of California’s Proposition 34, the End the Death Penalty Initiative, on the November ballot, he added.
On Friday, a Jefferson Parish judge overturned the conviction and ordered Thibodeaux released from death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, at 12:35 p.m. Central Time, a corrections spokeswoman told The Times.
After he walked out of Angola, Thibodeaux released a statement through his attorneys: “I’m grateful to Mr. Connick and his people for studying my case and for their commitment to justice. I’m looking forward to life as a free man again, but I have great sympathy for the Champagne family that lost their daughter and sister. I sincerely hope that the person who murdered her is found and tried.”
Connick, who was elected in 1996, said he supports Thibodeaux’s release and would continue to search for Crystal Champagne’s killer.
“As district attorney, it is my duty to make every effort to ensure that convictions are based on reliable evidence. I have concluded that the primary evidence in this case, the confession, is unreliable. Without the confession the conviction cannot stand, and therefore, in the interest of justice, it must be vacated,” he said in a Friday statement emailed to The Times.
Connick said he intends to continue investigating the now-open case with the help of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a veteran officer elected in 2007.
Scheck said he trusts Connick to reinvestigate and address any possible misconduct because he showed such good faith in working with Thibodeaux’s lawyers, splitting the cost of DNA testing and reexamining the case.
John Thompson, co-founder of Resurrection After Exoneration, assembled about a dozen other exonerees to greet Thibodeaux at the group’s offices after his release. The New Orleans-based nonprofit group helps exonerated and former inmates find jobs, housing and healthcare; Thibodeaux was expected to hold a briefing there late Friday.
Thompson, 50, is also an exoneree, released from Angola in 2003 after serving 18 years for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row.
He said exonerees like Thibodeaux are victims of prosecutorial misconduct and that lawmakers need to hold such prosecutors accountable.
Thompson’s group has lobbied for Louisiana lawmakers to increase compensation to those exonerated to match federal or neighboring states’ compensation; the state currently offers $25,000 annually for up to 10 years.
The federal government offers $50,000 for each year wrongfully held, or $100,000 a year in capital cases. In neighboring Texas, which has 296 inmates on death row, including 10 women, those exonerated receive $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned, plus health coverage and other benefits, and district attorneys in Dallas and Houston’s Harris County have started conviction integrity units to investigate alleged wrongful convictions.
“When these legislators and prosecutors are coming to us as taxpayers asking for more money to prosecute people, accountability needs to be attached,” Thompson told The Times on Friday.
After Thompson was released, he found work at a law firm, married and rebuilt his home. But he said many who were exonerated have not been so lucky. After Hurricane Katrina, many did not have homes to return to, or family in the area.
“It can be rough,” Thompson said, especially for former inmates like Thibodeaux, who was convicted when he was 22. “Being how young he was, I don’t know what his skill level will be. He’s going to have a real hard time transitioning.”