ANGOLA, LA (WAFB) - After spending 15 years in Angola on death row for the murder of his half-cousin, Damon Thibodeaux has been exonerated through DNA testing. He is the 300th person to be released due to this type of evidence and the 18th person who served time on death row who has been freed by DNA.
"I didn't think this would happen and I just want to thank you," said Thibodeaux to his family and lawyers at a press conference in New Orleans Friday afternoon.
Fourteen-year-old Crystal Champagne was last seen alive on the late afternoon of July 19, 1996, when she left the family's Westwego, Louisiana, apartment for a Winn-Dixie. When she did not return home, 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.
Thibodeaux was among the suspects brought in for questioning by police after the murder. According to the Innocence Project, he initially denied any involvement in the crime and agreed to take a polygraph. He was told that he had failed the polygraph.
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.
In 2007, based on evidence of Thibodeaux's innocence, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office initiated a joint reinvestigation with the Innocence Project and the rest of Thibodeaux's legal team. The parties conducted multiple rounds of DNA and forensic evidence testing of the crime scene and other physical evidence and interviewed numerous fact witnesses.
DNA testing concluded that there was no evidence connecting Thibodeaux to the murder and that, contrary to Thibodeaux's statement, the victim had not been sexually assaulted.
According to the Innocence Project website, the reinvestigation further confirmed that Thibodeaux's confession was false in every significant aspect and included a thorough examination of the reasons why Thibodeaux had falsely confessed, 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. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project says they took this evidence to the Jefferson Parish Prosecutors office seven years ago.
"We said look, we think we have some evidence here that shows that Damon is an innocent man and let us begin a process where we will share information with you," said Scheck. "You share with us. Together we paid for DNA testing...hundreds of thousands of dollars"
District Attorney, Paul Connick, Jr., joined the Innocence Project, the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana and the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron in agreeing to overturn Thibodeaux's conviction and death sentence, and he was released Friday, September 28, 2012 after 15 years on death row and 16 years of wrongful incarceration as the 300th person exonerated through DNA testing.
"Look at it first, make sure you have the right person before you start a process of execution," said Thibodeaux.
"If this case doesn't teach us that we can't have the death penalty, it doesn't.....if we can't figure out how to have a death penalty that doesn't put innocent men and innocent women on death row then we don't deserve to have it," said Carolyn Tillman, one of the attorney's who worked on Thibodeaux's case. "It's a human rights violation."