After 15 years on death row, Damon A. Thibodeaux is released

In 1997, Damon A. Thibodeaux was convicted for raping and murdering his own cousin, 14-year-old Crystal Champagne.

Damon was 23 at the time. He was sentenced to death.

It had taken Louisiana detectives only nine hours to badger, bully, and successfully coerce a confession from the young man.

Only nine hours to achieve what would result in a death sentence.

Like thousands of false confessions before and since, Thibodeaux’s confession didn’t jive with the evidence. Indeed it didn’t jive with the crime — Crystal had not been raped, though her body had been staged to appear as if she’d been sexually assaulted.

As if detectives took their cues from the the extensive literature on how not to conduct an interrogation:

Only 54 minutes were recorded out of the entire 8 ½ hour interrogation. This confession was inconsistent with the crime in numerous details. After learning from detectives that the victim had been strangled, Thibodeaux confessed to using a white or gray speaker wire from his car. Thibodeaux was fed non-public details about the crime, but here he guessed incorrectly. He couldn’t have known about the red electrical cord, which had been burned off a section of cord found hanging from the tree above her body. [1]

It would take another 15 years for DNA evidence to confirm what detectives didn’t care to investigate: that someone else committed the crime.

As reported at Baton Rouge Today, detectives now know what they might have figured out in 1997.

that Thibodeaux’s confession was false in every significant aspect, [for reasons] including exhaustion, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty. The prosecution’s own expert had concluded that Thibodeaux falsely confessed based on fear of the death penalty, but this information was never shared with the defense. [2]

Though few would blame him for being bitter, Thibodeaux — the 300th person cleared by DNA testing, the 6th from Louisiana’s death row alone, all thanks to the Innocence Project — has an attitude of gratitude. As reported at the Washington Post:

In a statement, Thibodeaux said he was grateful to the district attorney and is “looking forward to life as a free man again.”

Thibodeaux confessed to the murder after a nine-hour interrogation. The Innocence Project says that was virtually the sole basis for his conviction.

The Innocence Project says since 2000, six people have been exonerated from Louisiana’s death row. [3]

As a result of the new DNA evidence, Damon, once branded a monster, and forever scarred by death row, is now free at last — while the murderer of at least one young girl, remains free to walk the streets.

Police have told the press that the investigation “continues.”

What they mean: it’s finally begun.

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[1] “DNA Evidence Exonerates Man After 15 Years on Death Row at Angola.” Baton Rouge Today. 29 September 2012. http://www.batonrougetoday.com/2012/09/baton-rouge-crime-news/dna-evidence-exonerates-man-after-15-years-on-death-row-at-angola/

[2] Ibid.

[3] “La. death row inmate released after confession turns out false and after being cleared by DNA.” AP / Washington Post. September 28, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/la-death-row-inmate-released-after-confession-turns-out-false-and-after-being-cleared-by-dna/2012/09/28/32a17602-09bc-11e2-9eea-333857f6a7bd_story.html