As of Friday, the efforts of the Innocence Project made Damon A. Thibodeaux the 300th person in the US that DNA evidence has assisted in exonerating. DNA exonerees collectively total 4,013 years of wrongful imprisonment. Thirty-three of them were under 18 when they were arrested.
The Innocence Project released a statement about Thibodeaux’s exoneration. In this quote, they try to look for the positive outcomes of all the innocent years spent in vein:
Fortunately, there are simple, common sense reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions and make sure law enforcement is focused on identifying the true perpetrators of crime. We owe it to the 300 men and women who have been exonerated to pass these reforms to help make sure that our criminal justice system is as accurate as possible. Fixing the system protects everyone because it ensures that the innocent go free and the real perpetrators are locked up and unable to commit other crimes.
People commonly assume that those who plead guilty must be guilty. Why would they say they did a crime they did not do? However, 28 of the 300 DNA exonerees pled guilty to the crimes they were convicted of despite their innocence. Thiboreaux is one of them.
In considering the textbook-botched job multiple parties did on Thibodeaux’s case, we can be thankful that he was saved from death row. He will no longer spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, waiting to be killed in accordance with Louisiana’s assessment of the murder and rape of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne. Without the efforts of the Innocence Project and his attorneys he would have died because of eyewitness misidentification and police interrogation in the form of threats, lies, and a forced false confession.
2007-2012: The Period of Reinvestigation
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office agreed to investigate what caused Thibodeaux’s imprisonment when his legal team and the Innocence Project brought evidence of his innocence to the District Attorney’s attention.
“I didn’t know that I had done it, but I done it,” Thibodeaux confessed to police in 1997.
They interrogated him for almost nine hours to glean this confession. Before he was convicted, he tried to retract his confession. However, the same judge that recently exonerated him would not hear his retraction and sentenced him.
Thibodeaux has now said: “At that point I was tired. I was hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I was willing to tell them anything they wanted me to tell them if it would get me out of that interrogation room.”
The eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen a man pacing around the area where Champagne’s body was found identified Thibodeaux as that man. But the trial did not reveal the two defeating details of this identification. The news broadcasted Thibodeaux’s picture the day before on TV, and he was already in custody when the witnesses claimed to have seen him.
The Cord on the Tree
The victim was found with a piece of red electrical cord around her neck. It had been burned off of a larger piece of cord found on the tree above where police found her body.
During the interrogations, police used leading questions to provoke an exhausted suspect to admit to actions that agreed with the evidence from the crime scene. They revealed non-public details about the crime with these questions. So Thibodeaux revealed in his confession that he knew details that presumably only the police and perpetrator knew about, which lead to the jury’s conclusion that he must be the perpetrator. It is sneaky and effective method, as it has been for plenty of other innocent people sent to prison.
He should not have known about the cord in the tree. Thibodeaux, in his confession, said he used a gray speaker wire from his car to strangle her. Even though he messed up the details, this was still enough for a conviction.
The cord tested positive for having blood on it in the original investigation, but it was not DNA tested. When later tested, it revealed the presence of male DNA that did not match that of Thibodeaux.
Not only did he take a polygraph—which is a highly questionable assessment of the truth for how easy it is to tell the exact opposite truth—he was told at a later time that he failed the test.
The prosecution’s expert knew that he had been threatened with the death penalty during interrogation and confessed in spite of it. The defense never found out. The police also only recorded 54 minutes out of the 8 1/2 hour interrogation.
Read The Sky Valley Chronicle’s article on Thibodeaux’s release.