Damon A. Thibodeaux, a Louisiana man who was sentenced to death by lethal injection, was freed Friday when DNA proved his innocence.
Thibodeaux, 38, was accused of raping and killing his 14-year-old step-cousin in 1997. One thing he wants law enforcement to learn is to have the right person before they start the process of executing the innocent.
“Make sure you have the right person before you start a process of executing someone,” he said, “because it costs a lot of money to go back and look at all of these cases again. If it's done right the first time, you shouldn't have to do that.”
Thibodeaux was grateful to Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr., and “his people for studying my case and for their commitment to justice.”
Connick “joined the Innocence Project and Thibodeaux's other counsel in agreeing to overturn Thibodeaux's conviction and death sentence after his confession to police was determined to be false,” the district attorney said in a statement.
According to its website, the Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 297 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.
Connick said his expert forensic psychiatrist,of the Forensic Panel, concluded the confession was false. Welner said Thibodeaux confessed falsely “under an unremarkable police interrogation.”
“This is a damn good day at the office,” said Denise LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, who has represented Thibodeaux since 1998.
“I'm looking forward to life as a free man again,” Thibodeaux said, “but I have great sympathy for the Champagne family that lost their daughter and sister. I sincerely hope that the person who murdered her is found and tried.”
“I feel free. I feel free,” he said when asked how he felt now that he's out behind the bars. “It's not something you can prepare yourself for, because you've been living in those conditions for so long.”
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 at the nearby strip mall. When she did not return home as expected, 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. There was a piece of red extension cord around her neck and the right side of her head and face had been beaten. In addition, her shirt was pulled above her breasts and her shorts around her knees and ankles, suggesting a possible sexual assault.