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After more than a decade on death row in Louisiana, Damon Thibodeaux will live as an innocent man in Minnesota.
A Jefferson Parish judge overturned Thibodeaux's murder conviction Friday and the 38-year-old Louisiana man walked out of prison, becoming the 300th prisoner nationwide freed after DNA evidence showed he was innocent. Of those 300, 18 were on death row, say lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project.
"It was just this huge, huge weight lifted off of me," said Thibodeaux, who will get into a rental car on Tuesday with one of his Minneapolis attorneys and head to Minnesota, where he'll start a new life after 16 years in prison, 15 of them on death row. "I felt lighter; the air tasted better. It was a great feeling, and I hope more guys in the position that I was in get to experience that."
His gratitude to his Minneapolis attorneys and the Innocence Project is immeasurable. "They made sure I didn't give up," he said. "It takes a lot of mental strength not to give up. It's not just the isolation ... you have a death sentence hanging over you. At any moment this judge can sign this execution order and they'll come and get you and kill you. It's surreal.
"I was 22 or 23 when they took me to death row. At that age, I had just started living and I wasn't ready to die yet. But you have no control over it."
For most of 16 years, Thibodeaux lived in near-isolation, locked in a cell 23 hours a day. He missed seeing his son grow up and never got to say goodbye to family members who died while he was in prison.
He now is adjusting to walking outside without having to wear chains, getting to know his now 20-year-old son and coming to grips with a world of technology that includes touch screens and "phones you can stick into your pocket."
But there's not a trace of anger in his voice. "Being angry would be a waste of time because ... I can't get the 16 years back," he said. "I have to keep focused on where I want to go and hope I can figure out along the way what I want to do. I can't think about what could have been, but will be. Being angry isn't going to help me put things back together."
Old wrongs made right
His release comes on the heels of several other recent exonerations.
A week ago 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 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, southwest of New Orleans.
The girl was last seen alive by her family when she left their Westwego apartment to go to a nearby grocery store. Her body was discovered the next evening under a bridge, her pants pulled down, a wire around her neck; she appeared to have been strangled. That night, detectives began interrogating potential witnesses, including Thibodeaux.
After a nine-hour interrogation, he confessed to raping and murdering Crystal, a confession that became the primary basis for his conviction in October 1997. He unsuccessfully appealed the conviction in 1999, arguing he was coerced into giving a false unrecorded confession. He also said that there was insufficient evidence to convict him and that he did not receive a fair trial.
"When you walk into an interrogation room, it's not at all what people think," Thibodeaux said Monday night during a telephone interview from New Orleans. "No one plans on giving a false confession. ... But I had no sleep, I had hardly eaten, and I had been smoking marijuana. It was a perfect storm. I'm just glad people were able to see that and I'm out."
Steve Kaplan, an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, was a part of Thibodeaux's legal team, which persuaded Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick to reinvestigate the case, sharing half the cost, which ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars. DNA testing showed Thibodeaux was not the killer and that Crystal had not been raped.
"It's been a remarkable journey for Damon," said Kaplan. Thibodeaux will stay with Kaplan until he settles into his new life with the help of Project for Pride in Living, a nonprofit in the Twin Cities.
Thibodeaux, who spent all his life in the South, is eager to move to Minnesota. "It's a place to start over," he said. "That's what I need, and I look forward to it. I hear Minnesota is a real nice place."
Thibodeaux is no longer the 22-year-old man he once was; prison changed him. "You learn to slow down and respect the time you have," he said. "You come face to face with your own mortality."
His hope is that other innocent people will find their way out with the help of those like his legal team and the Innocence Project.
"They're not seeking keys to the gates to let everybody out. They're just looking for people who fell into the system," he said. "There are others like me. I hope that one day they're found. I'm the 300th exoneration. I wasn't the first, and I'm quite sure I'm not going to be the last."
The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788