A man who spent a third of his life on the death row after being wrongly convicted of murder, died of COVID-19 years after being freed.
Damon Thibodaux died on 31 augustNine years later, DNA evidence acquitted him of the murder sentence and released him from solitary confinement in an Angola prison in Louisiana.
“Damon is one of the most unique people I’ve ever met,” Steve Kaplan, Thibodaux’s former attorney, told USA Today.
“If you met Damon, you wouldn’t know what he’s been through.”
Thibodaux was arrested in New Orleans in 1996 for the murder of his 14-year-old cousin, Crystal Champagne.
He was in town from Texas to attend some family weddings and while there, he took a job on a barge traveling up and down the Mississippi River.
After three weeks on the barge, Thibodaux visited Champagne’s family when she disappeared. According to Kaplan, she was found the next day five miles from home and brutally beaten.
Kaplan said the Jefferson Parish Police Department interrogated Thibodaux for nine hours and eventually gave him a false confession. Found guilty of the death penalty and the death penalty by reason of the confession.
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Upon his death sentence, Thibodaux was locked in his cell for 23 hours a day. He started a routine of cleaning the Bible, exercising and reading the Bible.
“He made a life outside the cell,” Kaplan said.
In 1999, the Minneapolis law firm Fredrickson & Byron handled their case with attorneys for the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana.
According to Kaplan, Kaplan became involved in the case in 2001 and the Innocence Project of New York in 2002. He re-examined the case and Thibodaux’s sentence was overturned.
After 16 years behind bars, he became a free man on September 28, 2012.
Thibodaux was met by his lawyers, family and a 20-year-old son whom he had not seen in 17 years. He relocated to Minneapolis and lived with Kaplan and his wife for a few months before finding an apartment of his own. Later he started driving interstate trucks.
“He started driving across the country which was the ultimate freedom,” Kaplan said.
Turning his pain into purpose, Thibodaux became active with a nonprofit based in Philadelphia called Witness to Innocence. Damon would go to law schools, colleges, and churches to discuss what he experienced at the death penalty.
Thibodaux’s life on death row was featured in several documentaries including “The Penalty” and “One for Ten”, a series about innocence and death row.
He later reconnected with his brother David Thibodaux and had recently bought land with him in Texas prior to his bout with COVID-19.
Damon was hospitalized in Jacksonville, Florida, a month before he died. Kaplan said he believed he was improving enough to be released.
“When they took him off the oxygen, his lungs broke down and his heart stopped,” he said.
“He was only 47 years old, so he lost 16 years of his life behind bars for something he didn’t do,” Kaplan said. “The resilience and strength of mind to endure what they did on death row takes a mental strength that is beyond my comprehension.”
Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalsha. Email: [email protected]