Damon A. Thibodeaux
False confession sent him to death row; DNA exonerated him 15 years later
Damon A. Thibodeaux confessed to the murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, who was reported missing by her family the evening of July 19, 1996, after she left home in the New Orleans suburb of Westwego to go to a supermarket. The following afternoon, her naked body was found on a levy near the Huey P. Long Bridge. She had been strangled with a wire ligature, and police suspected that she had been raped.
Early the morning of July 21, after a nine-hour interrogation and after taking a polygraph test, which police said indicated deception, Thibodeaux, a 23-year-old deckhand on a Mississippi River workboat, confessed to both raping and murdering Crystal; neither the interrogation nor the confession was recorded. Jefferson Parish investigators quoted Thibodeaux as saying that he had picked up Crystal at the supermarket and driven her to the levy in his car. They began having consensual sex, he said, but he “snapped” when Crystal “started hollering 'Ouch, it hurts! Take it easy.'” He added that he strangled her with his hands for several minutes, and then wrapped the wire around her neck.
There was no physical evidence linking Thibodeaux to the crime. Hairs and fibers vacuumed from his car did not match samples from the victim. There was nothing on any items of his clothing or hers linking them to each other. Moreover, even though investigators claimed that Thibodeaux specifically told them he had ejaculated into and onto her body, no semen was recovered.
At Thibodeaux’s jury trial in October 1997, in addition to his dubious confession, the prosecution presented two women who claimed they had seen Thibodeaux on the levy, pacing and acting nervous, after Crystal disappeared. The women identified him after seeing photographs of him in the news media. Neither race nor cross-racial identification was an issue; the defendant, the victim, and the eyewitnesses were all Caucasians. Thibodeaux did not testify. His principal defense was an alibi — provided by his mother and sister. After brief deliberation, the jury found him guilty and then, at the punishment phase of the trial, eligible for the death penalty based on a single aggravating circumstance — that the crime had occurred during a rape. Judge Patrick McCabe sentenced Thibodeaux to death.
In 2007 — at the behest of pro bono attorneys from the Innocence Project of New York, the Capital Punishment Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, and the Minneapolis law firm of Fredrikson & Byron — Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. reopened the investigation. Extensive new DNA testing was conducted by forensic geneticist Edward T. Blake, establishing conclusively that Crystal had not been raped; additional forensic evidence demonstrated that other elements of the confession were false as well. A male DNA profile — not Thibodeaux’s — was found in blood on a piece of wire similar to that used to strangle Crystal; the wire had been found hanging from a tree near the crime scene. It also was determined that the women who testified that they saw Thibodeaux on the levy, could not have seen him — because he already was in custody when they saw whoever they saw.
Finally, the prosecution consulted a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Michael M. Welner, who concluded that Thibodeaux’s confession had been the result of police pressure, exhaustion, psychological vulnerability, and fear of the death penalty.
On September 29, 2012, Connick joined lawyers from the Innocence Project, the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, Fredrikson & Byron in a motion to vacate Thibodeaux’s conviction and death sentence and dismiss the charges against him. Judge McCabe, who had sentenced Thibodeaux to death in 1997, granted the motion. That afternoon, Thibodeaux was released directly from death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Thibodeaux was the 300th person to be exonerated by DNA; of those, 18 had been sentenced to death.
— Rob Warden