After nearly nine hours of interrogation in a Louisiana police station, Damon Thibodeaux had reasons to lie. Investigators who revisited the case a decade after he was convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection said he was exhausted, psychologically vulnerable and frightened by the prospect of facing the death penalty when he falsely confessed to raping and killing his 14-year-old step-cousin.
After 15 years on death row, Thibedeaux in September walked out of Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penetentiary as a free man, the dark cloud of his capital-murder conviction burned away the light of multiple DNA tests that found no evidence he was the killer. Activists at the Innocence Project say he is the 300th wrongly convicted inmate to be freed by DNA testing since the project started keeping records.
In almost half of the cases where the Innocence Project’s involvement led to release of the person wrongfully charged, the late-stage testing also pointed to the real perpetrators. In the eyes of the Innocence Project, that means at least 130 violent crimes could have been prevented if the real perpetrators had initially been apprehended instead of the wrongly accused person.
In Thibideaux’s case, DNA testing didn’t immediately reveal the actual perpetrator. Tests conducted long after his conviction did, however, prove that the victim had not been sexually assaulted. And the tests found no evidence Thibedeaux had been at the scene where 14-year-old Crystal Champagne’s body was found alongside a levee. Her face was bruised from a beating and a piece of red extension cord was found around her neck.
During his interrogation in 1996, Thibedeaux said he’d used gray or white speaker wire from his car while attacking her. The Innocence Project reported Thibedeaux had learned some non-public details about Champagne’s murder from his interrogators, but that when he guessed other details, he guessed wrong. Less than an hour of the all-day interrogation was recorded.
Unlike many cases the Innocence Project investigates, the agency that prosecuted Thibedeaux joined defense investigators in an exhaustive reinvestigation launched in 2007 after the Project amassed evidence pointing to his wrongful conviction. Further DNA testing revealed male DNA on the electric cord found at the crime scene did not belong to Thibedeaux.
In about one in five cases the Project selects to investigate, prosecutors oppose retesting of DNA evidence. Another one in five cases are not re-investigated because forensic evidence has been lost or destroyed. Even when tests are conducted, one in five yields inconclusive results. And the vast majority of cases the Innocence Project has been asked to investigate — as many as 19 out of 20 — don’t involve DNA evidence. More than 4,000 prisoners each year ask the Innocence Project to review evidence that led to their convictions.