Former death row inmate Damon Thibodeaux, center, gets a visit from two… (Michael Democker, Times-Picayune )
A Louisiana man has been released from death row, becoming the 300th prisoner nationwide to be freed after DNA evidence showed he was innocent.
Of those 300 prisoners, 18 had been on death row, according to lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project.
"It feels good. I'm still processing it," said Damon Thibodeaux, 38, when reached by phone in New Orleans.
A Jefferson Parish judge overturned his murder conviction Friday and ordered Thibodeaux released after 16 years in prison, 15 on death row. The decision was one of several recent exonerations across the country.
Last Monday, John Edward Smith was released from a Los Angeles jail nearly two decades after he was wrongfully imprisoned in connection with a gang-related shooting. In August, Chicago prosecutors moved to dismiss murder charges against Alprentiss Nash 17 years after he was convicted of a murder that recent DNA tests indicated he didn't commit. Earlier that month in Texas, David Lee Wiggins was freed after DNA tests cleared him of a rape for which he had served 24 years.
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, her parents alerted police and a search ensued.
Her body was discovered the next evening under a bridge, her pants pulled down, a wire 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 one of Thibodeaux's attorneys, Steve Kaplan of the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson & Byron.
In 2007, Thibodeaux's legal team persuaded Jefferson Parish Dist. Atty. Paul Connick to reinvestigate the case, sharing half the cost, which ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars. DNA testing showed that Thibodeaux was not the killer and that Crystal had not been raped.
"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," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which also represented Thibodeaux. The case highlights the importance of California's Proposition 34, which would repeal the death penalty, on the November ballot, Scheck added.
Thibodeaux, who said he felt "great sympathy for the Champagne family" and hoped Crystal's killer "is found and tried," said he was grateful the district attorney was willing to reexamine his case.
"A lot of prosecutors, when they see a case like mine, they just turn away from it and say, 'We tried it in court, that's it,'" he said.
Louisiana pays those wrongfully convicted $25,000 for each year they were held in error for up to a decade.
Thibodeaux plans to live in Minnesota, which he heard had a good reintegration program for former inmates.
After he walked out of prison, Thibodeaux said, he took the first step toward that new life, inhaling a deep breath of "free air."
"It's probably the best breath I've ever had," he said.