NEW ORLEANS - After serving 15 years on death row, an innocent man began a new life Friday. Damon Thibodeaux, now 38, was released from Angola State Prison after DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. It's a day Thibodeaux said he once only dreamed about.
"You have hope and you start fighting and eventually this is where it leads to," he said.
Before his release, Thibodeaux was confined to a six by nine foot cell, mostly in isolation. He was convicted in 1997 for raping and murdering his 14-year-old step cousin, Crystal Champagne, in Jefferson Parish. Thibodeaux said he falsely confessed after a nine hour interrogation. He said the real death sentence would have been giving up.
"The minute you give up completely is the minute you die. Period," said Thibodeaux. "If you give up then there's no fight left for you."
Now the fight focuses on improving the criminal justice system. Thibodeaux is the 18th person in the nation to be exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. A third of those exonerations have been in Louisiana. Since 2002, according to the Innocence Project, the number of people on Louisiana's death row who have been exonerated is double the number who have actually been executed.
And those who worked on Thibodeaux's case said it's a sign something needs to change.
"If we can't figure out how to have a death penalty that doesn't put innocent men on death row, and innocent women on death row across the country, then we don't deserve to have it. It's a human rights violation," said Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU's capital punishment project.
LeBoeuf believes Louisianans should demand a moratorium on executions until the state can ensure no more innocent people will be sentenced to death. Damon's legal team said one safeguard would be taping full police interrogations, which did not happen in Thibodeaux's case.
"We all learn lessons from these exonerations. That's the whole point. We ask the question, 'What went wrong, how can we fix it, how can we prevent this from happening again?" said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project and famed DNA expert.
"I hope that, in the future, cases like ours can be used as examples of what not to do during an investigation or interrogation and even during the court process, and make the system better by it,' said Thibodeaux.
Thibodeaux's first meal upon release was at Wendy's in Gonzales. He later had a private dinner with his family and legal team. He plans to start a new life in Minnesota.
"Just concentrating on putting my life back together and moving forward," he said.
Thibodeaux and his legal team wouldn't go into detail about what prompted the false confession. They do say there are a number of leads and potential suspects in this case.
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr. Wouldn't comment because it's an open investigation.