Death Row’s Damon Thibodeaux Is 300th Person Set Free by DNA

The exoneration of Louisiana inmate could help end the death penalty in California.

Damon Thibodeaux’s exoneration in Louisiana may help put California’s death penalty on ice. (Photo: The Innocence Project)

Oct 4, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Damon Thibodeaux spent 15 years in Angola State Prison in Louisiana, confined to a 6-by-9-foot cell for 23 hours a day, sentenced to death for a crime he would tell anyone who would listen that he did not commit.

Last Friday, he became a free man.

Thibodeaux was exonerated after a team from the Innocence Project discovered DNA evidence that proved he was not a murderer. This latest reversed conviction was a milestone both personally for the freed inmate, and for the Innocence Project. Thibodeaux’s exoneration marked the 300th case of a wrongfully accused or convicted person being cleared by DNA evidence.

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In 1996, Thibodeaux was picked up by Louisiana Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies for questioning in the rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin, Crystal Champagne.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Thibodeaux was brought in by deputies at 7:45 p.m., July 20, 1996. His interrogation did not end until 4:21 a.m. After nine hours of intense probing, including a failed polygraph test, Thibodeaux confessed to the murder. He later recanted, but was convicted nonetheless and sentenced to death.

Since the inception of genetics-based forensic testing procedures, 300 wrongly convicted individuals—based on DNA evidence—have escaped horrific sentences. False confessions were involved in 25 percent of those cases.

“Most evidence is destroyed after five years,” says Minsker. “There have been plenty of cases where Death Row inmates try to appeal their cases based on DNA evidence, only to find it had been destroyed years ago.”

Thibodeaux’s case comes at a crucial political time, as advocates in California are attempting to outlaw the state’s 35-year-old death penalty law. This November, Golden State voters will consider Proposition 34, which would replace the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without parole.

“The tragedy of Damon’s case highlights the importance of this initiative,” Natasha Minsker, Campaign Manager for the Yes on 34 campaign, tells TakePart. “He had DNA evidence, and it still took 15 years to exonerate.”

Minsker notes that Damon was extremely lucky to have DNA evidence on his side. In 90 percent of murders, it’s simply not present.

DNA evidence is common in cases that involve sexual assault,” she says. “Most homicides, however, involved gunshots. Perpetrators rarely leave DNA evidence in those cases. And that’s your typical homicide, particularly in California.”

“Most evidence is destroyed after five years,” says Minsker. “There have been plenty of cases where Death Row inmates try to appeal their cases based on DNA evidence, only to find it had been destroyed years ago.”

Compounding the difficulty are problems with crime-scene contamination and antiquated storage procedures for biological evidence—often housed for prolonged periods of time in a courthouse basement.

“Prop. 34 is the only way to ensure that someone in Damon’s position isn’t wrongly executed in the state of California,” Minsker insists.

Despite endorsements from law enforcement experts, such as former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford in the video above, as it currently stands, Prop. 34’s fate is up in the air. According to the latest polls, taken before Thibodeaux’s case went public, 34 percent of Californians support the initiative, 34 oppose, and the rest have yet to make up their minds.

Minsker says she hopes Thibodeaux’s story will help sway the undecided. The Yes on 34 campaign wants to bring him out to California to speak about his experience—though Minsker cautions: “He’s been through a lot. I’m sure he wants some time to recuperate and enjoy his freedom.”

Nonetheless, Thibodeaux’s story has generated plenty of interest on its own. Whether that interest is enough to sway undecided voters, we’ll have to wait until November to see.

Are a few honest mistakes sufficient reason to outlaw the death penalty? Leave your reasons in COMMENTS.