Louisiana Man on Death Row for 15 Years Becomes 300th Person Exonerated by DNA Evidence



Damon Thibodeaux, Who Falsely Confessed to the Murder of His Cousin, is the 18th Person Who Served Time on Death Row to Be Freed By DNA


Paul Cates, 212-364-5346,cell 917-566-1294, pcates@innocenceproject.org 
Kelly Griffith, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., (612) 492-7514, kgriffith@fredlaw.com

(New Orleans, LA; September 28, 2012)—Damon A. Thibodeaux, who has been on death row in Louisiana since October 1997, was exonerated today of the murder and rape of his 14-year old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, making him the 300th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the U.S.  District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr. joined the Innocence Project and Thibodeaux’s other counsel in agreeing to overturn Thibodeaux’s conviction and death sentence after DNA and other evidence proved that he had not committed the crime for which he had falsely confessed.  Thibodeaux is expected to walk out of Angola Prison today after an order by a Jefferson Parish court overturning the conviction and dismissing the indictment.  He becomes the 18th person who has served time on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

“Like the other 299 DNA exonerees, 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, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law.  “But the incredible cooperation that we have received from District Attorney Connick is a powerful illustration of how transformative DNA evidence has been to the criminal justice system.  District Attorneys now recognize that the system doesn’t always get it right, and many, like District Attorney 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.”  
Crystal Champagne’s family last saw her alive on the afternoon of July 19, 1996 when she left the family’s Westwego Apartment for a Winn-Dixie at the nearby strip mall.  After she did not return home when expected, her family, several friends, and law enforcement began a search for her that ended on the following evening with the discovery of her body along the levee in Bridge City.  That same evening, law enforcement began interrogating and interviewing potential witnesses, including Thibodeaux.  After some nine hours of interrogation, he provided an apparent confession to raping and murdering the victim.  That confession was virtually the sole basis for his conviction and death sentence in October 1997.

Thibodeaux, now 38, echoed that sentiment, adding “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.”

Thibodeaux’s team included Denise LeBoeuf and Caroline Tillman of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana (LeBoeuf is currently Director of the ACLU’s Death Penalty Project and Tillman is now an attorney with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans), Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, and Steve Kaplan and Richard H. Kyle, Jr., of the Fredrikson & Byron law firm in Minneapolis.  Assisted by several DNA and world-class forensic scientists, homicide and police interrogation methods expert Thomas Streed, PhD, and private investigators, they obtained evidence demonstrating that Thibodeaux was not the murderer, that the victim had not been raped, and that she had also not been murdered in the manner that Thibodeaux had described after some nine hours of interrogation.  

In 2007, Thibodeaux’s team approached Connick and his staff, and presented the then-known evidence of actual innocence to them.  Both sides then began a cooperative process that was rigorous and transparent, including mutual exchanges of evidence and information.  Connick was assisted primarily by Steve Wimberly, Esq., and Chief Investigator, Vince Lamia, who reviewed the evidence and actively participated in both the joint investigation and the District Attorney’s own independent review of the case.  

During the course of this joint investigation, the parties conducted multiple rounds of DNA and forensic evidence testing of the crime scene evidence and the other physical evidence and interviewed numerous fact witnesses. This additional evidence confirmed that the confession that Thibodeaux had given was false in every aspect.  In addition, the joint investigation included a thorough examination of the reasons why Thibodeaux had falsely confessed.  The joint effort has also given rise to potential new leads and suspects.  Because, however, the investigation into the murder is ongoing, this information cannot be disclosed at present.  

“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 Kaplan.  “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 and reliable not only in light of the interrogation methods used in obtaining the confession, but also in light of other evidence that contradicts or disproves the confession.”

Tillman noted that “This journey to freedom was a long time coming.  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.  It’s been a privilege for the entire team to represent and get to know this very remarkable individual.”  

“The death penalty is a human rights violation in any case, for anyone.  But, there can be no stronger argument against capital punishment than the condemnation of a truly innocent man,” said LeBoeuf.   “Louisiana came—to use Justice Blackmon’s phrase—‘perilously close to simple murder’ and Louisiana citizens should demand a moratorium on executions until they can be assured that there are no more miscarriages of justice like the one that occurred in this case.” Since 2000, six innocent people have been exonerated from Louisiana’s death row, versus just three executions. 

John Koneck, Fredrikson & Byron’s president, stated that “Our work on Damon’s case over the past 12 years is part of our continuing commitment to representing Louisiana death row inmates since the 1980s.”  Added Pam Wandzel, Fredrikson & Byron’s Pro Bono Program Director, “Our firm has had the unique privilege of working with Damon and this amazing team of lawyers and professionals for the past twelve years.  Cases like Damon’s drive us to help those who can’t afford lawyers.  We’re all committed now to helping him begin his new life in the Twin Cities.”  

300 Exonerations And Counting

Because biological evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing is only available in less than 10% of serious felonies, the DNA exoneration represent just a fraction of the people who have been wrongly convicted.  The 300 DNA exonerees have served a combined 4013 years in prison, with an average of 13 and a half years each.  The real perpetrator was identified in nearly half of the cases, and at least 130 violent crimes could have been prevented if the true perpetrator was initially arrested instead of the wrongly convicted.  More than a third of those cleared by DNA have not been compensated for the time they spent wrongly imprisoned. While DNA testing has been widely available in criminal prosecutions since the late 90s, people convicted as late as 2008 have been cleared by DNA, indicating that this powerful tool will continue to be helpful in proving wrongful convictions for the foreseeable future.  

 “The 300 DNA exonerations have presented us with opportunity that we’ve never had before to learn about the causes of wrongful convictions and the flaws in the criminal justice system,” said Vanessa Potkin, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. “Now that we’ve been able to identify systematic problems, such as false confessions like we saw in Mr. Thibodeaux’s case, we have a moral obligation to heed the lessons learned and take steps to prevent these grave injustices.”   

The leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA is eyewitness misidentification, which has played a role in nearly 75 percent of the 300 exonerations.  Unvalidated or improper forensic science played a role in approximately half (51 %) of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. False confessions and admissions lead to wrongful convictions in just over a quarter (27%). Informants contributed to wrongful convictions in 18 % of cases.

Thibodeaux is the 18th person who served time on death row to be exonerated by DNA in the U.S. The 18 death row exonerees were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 229 years in prison – including 202 years on death row – for crimes they didn’t commit. Another 16 were charged with capital crimes but not sentenced to death.  Seventeen people were threatened with the death penalty but not ultimately charged with a capital offense.  

Additional information about Thibodeaux’s case and the 300 DNA exoneration, including videos, photos and a sharable infographic, is available at www.innocenceproject.org/300. 


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