Damon Thibodeaux escaped death row when DNA helped exonerate him of a murder he didn't commit.

Then COVID-19 killed him.

"It's so unfair," said Steve Kaplan, a retired Minneapolis attorney who helped free Thibodeaux after he spent 16 years behind bars, 15 of them on death row in Louisiana. "I'm struggling to make peace with it, but you can't."

Thibodeaux, who moved to Minnesota to restart his life and eventually settled with his family in Texas, died Sept. 2 of complications from COVID-19. He was 47, but a third of those years were spent behind bars for his wrongful conviction.

Thibodeaux, who became a long-haul trucker after restarting his life, was on the road in early August when he landed in a Jacksonville, Fla., hospital with COVID — a few days after getting his first dose of a vaccine against the disease. After three weeks in and out of intensive care, he was expecting to be released.

"Bro, I'm ready to get out of this place and come home," he told his younger brother, David Thibodeaux, on the evening of Sept. 2.

Those were nearly the same words he said to David just days before Damon was released in 2012 from the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

But just a few hours after he talked to Damon, David's phone rang. A doctor asked his permission to stop resuscitation efforts on Damon.

A nurse came on the line and explained that Damon's lungs had collapsed and his heart had stopped.

"We've been trying to resuscitate him for the last 45 minutes," the nurse told him. "We've gotten no response. Can we stop resuscitating?"

"My heart sunk," David said in an interview last week. "I wasn't just being asked to let my brother go. You're asking me let my best friend go."

Growing up, the brothers endured abuse from their mother's ex-husband. Damon also was sexually abused by the man and later by another relative, a neighbor and eventually his grandfather.

"We shared a lot of hardships together," David recalled.

Damon was a 22-year-old deckhand on a Mississippi River barge in July 1996 when his 14-year-old step-cousin went missing while he was at her family's apartment. After the girl's body was discovered along the river, Damon was subjected to a long, grueling interrogation that pushed him to confess to a crime he didn't commit. A year later, he was convicted and sentenced to die.

After he had sat on death row for 15 years, a team of lawyers, including those from the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson and Byron, helped prove Damon's innocence, noting his confession didn't match the physical evidence, that witness statements were inconsistent and DNA tests showed no connection between him and the murder. When the district attorney's own expert concluded that Damon had falsely confessed to the crime, the conviction was overturned and he was set free in September 2012.

Life after death row

Damon came to Minnesota to restart his life with the help of Kaplan, then an attorney with the Fredrikson and Byron firm, and a contingent of other guiding forces.

"Life had knocked him down so many times," said Fredrikson law firm president John Koneck, and Damon had every reason to be angry and bitter about what life handed him. Instead, those who knew him marveled at his resiliency and optimism. A kind and gentle soul with an easy smile, he was as gracious as he was grateful.

"He had an impact on everyone who had a privilege of knowing him," Kaplan said.

Damon got his first dose of Moderna early last month and then hit the road the next day, delivering freight from Waco, Texas, to Chicago and then New York.

When he reached Florida, the intense pain on his right side was almost unbearable. After dropping a load of freight in Jacksonville on Aug. 10, he went to the hospital, where he collapsed in the emergency room. As he battled COVID and pneumonia in Florida, his 64-year-old mother in Texas fell ill and was rushed to the hospital, where she slowly recovered from COVID.

Damon also began to improve and was told he would be released from the hospital within days. Hours later, doctors and nurses were working furiously to resuscitate him.

David, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, knew from combat training that it was unlikely his brother's heart could be restarted after 45 minutes of trying.

"Please, go ahead and stop,' " he finally told the nurse on the phone.

As the noise from the hospital machines stopped, "there was complete silence," David said.

Then came the nurse's heartbreaking words: "I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry."

David's raw emotions from that moment have slowly given way to reflections mixed with the deep faith that he and his brother shared.

"I believe Damon is truly home and has found peace that he couldn't find in the flesh," he said.

In the nine years after he was released from death row, Damon reveled in the joy of living a "normal" life. He and David rebuilt a 1974 Dodge Dart, a car Damon loved. It has a new coat of paint — metallic cobalt blue with two 8-inch pinstripes running from bumper to bumper — and David will see to it that the interior is finished. He also will build the stadium seats that he and Damon planned so they could watch the ballgames in the fields adjacent to their 7-acre property.

"The last weekend he was here, we grabbed a couple chairs in the evening to watch the kids playing ball," David said. Damon "enjoyed watching things that made people happy."

Damon also loved his job. Along the way, countless people got to know the man his brother always knew.

"Everybody got to see how big of a heart he had," David said. "He proved to everyone that he wasn't the monster that they made him out to be."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788