Last Modified: Saturday, September 29, 2012 6:12 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A 38-year-old man wrongly convicted of raping and killing his 14-year-old step-cousin in 1997 was released Friday from Louisiana's death row after his confession was determined to be false and DNA tests found him to be innocent.
Damon A. Thibodeaux was released at about 12:30 p.m. after spending 15 years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, said Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Thibodeaux was sentenced to death by lethal injection for raping, beating and strangling Crystal Champagne.
After his release, Thibodeaux was driven to New Orleans and given a hero's welcome at a center for exonerated inmates.
"I hope in the future, cases like ours can be used as examples of what not to do during an investigation, interrogation and even during the court process — and make the system better by it instead of just putting these cases under a rug," he said at a news conference with several exonerated death row inmates standing behind him.
Thibodeaux called his walk out of the Angola prison to freedom "surreal," one he doubted at times would happen. He plans to move to Minnesota to be close to his defense lawyers and to get the help he needs to adjust to life outside of prison.
He said being free and surrounded by so many people was hard to comprehend after so many years in solitary confinement.
"Right now I just want to decompress," he said. "And get used to being around so many people."
In an earlier statement, Thibodeaux said he was grateful to Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. and "his people for studying my case and for their commitment to justice."
He said he had "great sympathy for the Champagne family that lost their daughter and sister. I sincerely hope that the person who murdered her is found and tried."
Prosecutors said the investigation into Champagne's murder continues.
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said Jefferson Parish prosecutors and Thibodeaux's defense lawyers worked together to analyze the evidence against Thibodeaux and concluded that he made a false confession.
Scheck also said DNA tests on the clothes Thibodeaux was wearing at the time of Champagne's slaying found no trace of her DNA and a wire broken off and used to strangle the girl found no trace of his DNA.
Champagne was last seen alive July 19, 1996, when she left her family's apartment in Westwego to go to a nearby supermarket. Her body was found the next evening along the Mississippi River levee in Bridge City. Thibodeaux helped in the search.
Thibodeaux, an offshore worker, was on friendly terms with Champagne and was visiting her family during a break from his job, according to a newspaper report at the time of his arrest.
Thibodeaux confessed to the murder after a nine-hour interrogation, which the Innocence Project said became "virtually the sole basis for his conviction and death sentence."
In 1999, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Thibodeaux's sentence and the U.S. Supreme Court did in 2000. In his pleading to the U.S. Supreme Court, he argued that sheriff's deputies had bullied and hypnotized him into confessing. His appeal alleged 54 errors in the trial.
Connick said his expert forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, of The Forensic Panel, concluded the confession was false.
Welner said Thibodeaux confessed falsely "under an unremarkable police interrogation."
He said Thibodeaux's "acute guilty feelings and expression" was illustrative of how suspects can be led into making false confessions.
"This case illustrates how a suspect's acute guilty feelings and expression and clearly false statements in questioning can snowball with interrogators who would logically interpret these as signs of criminal responsibility," he said.
During the trial's sentencing phase, jurors were told that Thibodeaux had been beaten with 2-by-4s and belts, sexually abused by family members and neighbors and beaten by his mother's husband, according to a newspaper account by The Times-Picayune.
The Innocence Project said the review of Thibodeaux's case also revealed that Champagne had not been raped and that she had not been murdered in the manner described by Thibodeaux in his confession.
Defense attorney Steve Kaplan said Thibodeaux's false confession was "a tragic illustration" of why police officers should be required to videotape interrogations. He said juries need to be shown entire interrogations to determine "whether it's truthful and reliable not only in light of the interrogation methods used in obtaining the confession, but also in light of other evidence that contradicts or disproves the confession."
Denise LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU's Death Penalty Project which worked on Thibodeaux's case, said Louisiana should consider a moratorium on executions in light of Thibodeaux's case.
"There can be no stronger argument against capital punishment than the condemnation of a truly innocent man," said LeBoeuf. "Louisiana citizens should demand a moratorium on executions until they can be assured that there are no more miscarriages of justice like the one that occurred in this case."
Since 2000, six people have been exonerated from Louisiana's death row, the Innocence Project said. Scheck said Thibodeaux was the 18th death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA.