JEFFERSON PARISH, La. – A man who had been on death row for 15 years for the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step cousin was exonerated and released from jail with the help of DNA evidence Friday.
Damon A. Thibodeaux walked out of Angola State Prison as the 300th person to be released nationwide thanks to the efforts of the Innocent Project, a group headed by famed DNA expert Barry Scheck.
“I feel free,” he said to both laughter and applause of an audience that included other former inmates that were freed by the Innocence Project. Thibodeaux said there were times during his 15 years in prison that he considered throwing in the towel.
“The minute you give up completely, is the minute you die,” he said. “If you give up, then there’s no fight left for you.”
Thibodeaux was accused of raping and killing his step-cousin, 14-year-old Crystal Champagne, in 1996 after she left her home to go to the grocery store.
“We all share the view that we’d like to see the person who committed this crime apprehended,” said Sheck. “Damon is related to Crystal. He was one of the people looking for her.”
Champagne’s body was found along the levee in Bridge City. Officials with the Innocence Project say that law enforcement began interrogating potential witnesses, including Thibodeaux back in 1996.
After a lengthy interrogation, Thibodeaux provided a confession to raping and murdering the victim, which was the primary basis for his conviction and death sentence in October 1997, according to the group.
After Dr. Michael Welner, a preeminent forensic psychiatrist and chairman of The Forensic Panel, reviewed the entire case file, including the results of the new forensic testing and other information not previously examined, and interviewed Thibodeaux and other pertinent witnesses, he concluded the confession was false.
“Thibodeaux was a 22-year-old of modest vulnerabilities who confessed falsely under unremarkable police interrogation. This case illustrates how a suspect's acute guilty feelings and expression and clearly false statements in questioning can snowball with interrogators who would logically interpret these as signs of criminal responsibility,” Welner said.
“As District Attorney, it is my duty to make every effort to ensure that convictions are based on reliable evidence,” said Paul Connick, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney. “This case remains open and under investigation.”
Sheck went to great lengths to thank Connick and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who they say helped out in a search for the truth.
Thibodeaux said he needs time to assimilate to his new, less-restricted surroundings. He said he felt like giving up when he first landed in jail, but that doing so would have spelled the end.