Via The Innocence Project:
Damon Thibodeaux, who has been on death row in Louisiana since October 1997, was exonerated of the murder and rape of his 14-year old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, making him the 300th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States, and the 18th to have served time on death row.
Damon Thibodeaux was sentenced to death for the New Orleans-area murder of his half-cousin Crystal Champagne based largely on his recanted confession. Thibodeaux spent 15 years in prison for the crime before his exoneration through DNA testing on September 28, 2012.
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.
The Confession and Trial
Thibodeaux was among the suspects brought in for questioning by police after the murder. He initially denied any involvement in the crime and agreed to take a polygraph. He was informed that he had failed the polygraph.
After additional hours of interrogation, he gave a recorded statement confessing to consensual and non-consensual sex with the victim and then to beating and murdering her. Only 54 minutes were recorded out of the entire 8 ½ hour interrogation. This confession was inconsistent with the crime in numerous details. After learning from detectives that the victim had been strangled, Thibodeaux confessed to using a white or gray speaker wire from his car. Thibodeaux was fed non-public details about the crime, but here he guessed incorrectly. He couldn’t have known about the red electrical cord, which had been burned off a section of cord found hanging from the tree above her body.
Although forensic examiners could find no evidence of semen in the victim’s body, a detective theorized that a sexual assault still could have occurred and that post-mortem maggot activity had consumed and degraded the evidence.
Additionally, two eyewitnesses testified that they saw someone pacing near where the body was found. They both selected Thibodeaux from a photo array and identified him in court.
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.
The eyewitnesses who identified Thibodeaux as the man they had seen pacing near the crime scene had already seen Thibodeaux’s photo in the news media before taking part in the identification procedure. Moreover, they revealed that the sighting had occurred the day after the body was found, when Thibodeaux was already in custody.
DNA testing performed by Dr. Edward Blake and other forensic experts 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. DNA testing of the maggots revealed no evidence of semen. DNA testing on both Thibodeaux and Champagne’s clothing confirmed that he could not have been the perpetrator. DNA on the cord in the tree, which had tested positive for blood in the original investigation, revealed male DNA that did not belong to Thibodeaux.
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.
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 in September 2012 after 15 years on death row and 16 years of wrongful incarceration as the 300th person exonerated through DNA testing.
- ‘The minute you give up completely is the minute you die’ (wwltv.com)
- Damon Thibodeaux, Being on Death Row Since October 1997: Innocent & Now Free! (incaseofinnocence.wordpress.com)