Arrested in New Orleans in 1996 for the murder of his half cousin, 14 year old Crystal Champagne, Damon Thibodeaux had resided in Louisiana's Angola Prison on Death Row for 15 years for a crime he was later found to be innocent of. Thanks to the DNA evidence uncovered by The Innocence Project, he became one of over 300 people who have been exonerated for crimes that they had been incarcerated for that they did not commit.
While there is no mention as to the specific DNA tests that were performed, it is mentioned that there was a discrepancy between the evidence that had been collected and the evidence that was used in the trial. After these discrepancies were discovered by Thibodeaux's lawyer, a group by the name of The Innocence Project was enlisted to help re-evaluate his conviction. The Innocence Project’s first case was in 1989, when Gary Dotson became the first person to be exonerated in the United States through the use of DNA evidence. In the years since Dotson's exoneration, new DNA evidence developed by the Innocence Project has exonerated over 280 individuals of crimes they did not commit. Seventeen of the exonerated persons had been convicted of first-degree murder and were subsequently sentenced to death. Others were exonerated of violent crimes such as rape and assault as in the case of Damon Thibodeaux, who was both convicted of rape and sentenced to death (Thompson, 2012).
The Innocence Project has also been described as “a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice (Innocence Project. 2012)."
The investigation of Damon Thibodeaux’s case by the police and subsequent prosecution was mainly based on a coerced confession and faulty evidentiary procedures as evidenced by a grueling 9 hour interrogation after which Thibodeaux signed a confession. In that confession, he stated that he drove to what was to become the crime scene and originally he had engaged in consensual sex with Crystal Champagne, however when she had asked him to stop, he didn’t and subsequently proceeded to rape her. However, the evidence showed that no sex had taken place.
Another issue mentioned in the confession, stated that Damon Thibodeaux confessed to strangling Crystal Champagne with a white or gray speaker wire that he had obtained from his car, whereas the evidence showed that it had been a red electrical conductor wire (Pikington, 2012). The reason for this discrepancy was that Damon Thibodeaux was fed non-public details about the crime, but here he guessed incorrectly as he couldn’t have known about the red electrical cord, which had been burned off a section of cord that was found hanging from the tree above her body (Innocence Project. 2012).
The last major discrepancy that should have raised red flags for investigators and prosecutors alike was the eyewitnesses who identified Thibodeaux as the man they had seen pacing near the crime scene. It was later determined that he had already seen Damon Thibodeaux’s photo in the news before taking part in the identification procedure. Moreover, it was later revealed that the alleged sighting had occurred the day after the body was discovered and at a point in time when Damon Thibodeaux had already been taken into custody.
From the beginning, the investigators focused on Damon Thibodeaux. Because he had been the last person to be seen with Crystal Champagne, they had a predisposed assumption of guilt, rather than a presumption of innocence. This is readily seen in the 8 1/2 to 9 hours of interrogation that Damon Thibodeaux was subjected to. It was because of the intense questioning, and the lack of providing food and water, that the investigators used which caused Damon to break down and confess to a crime that he did not commit.
One of the assumptions that led to his conviction was the lack of semen present at the scene. The detectives assumed that the lack of sample was due to deterioration which was mistakenly thought to have been consumed by the maggots which were present on and around the body. At the time, the investigators failed to test the maggots for semen, which would have proven that there had been no sexual activity involved in the murder.
There was also no testing done on Crystal Champagne's clothing prior to the time of the trial. If there had been, it would have been another piece of evidence which led away from Damon Thibodeaux, as his DNA was found not to be present on Crystal Champagne’s clothing.
Yet another piece of evidence that would have proven Thibodeaux innocent was the DNA which was discovered on the red wire used to strangle Crystal. It had previously only been tested for blood, not DNA. This DNA turned out to not be Damon's but that of an unknown male.
This case is a prime example of the mistakes that can be made by investigators involving DNA evidence. It was because of the involvement of The Innocence Project that further testing of the evidence was done and Damon Thibodeaux was released after 15 years.
Innocence Project. Know The Cases: Damon Thibodeaux. 2012. http://www.innocenceproject.org/
Pilkington, Ed . Louisiana death row inmate freed after 15 years – with a little help from DNA. The Guardian. 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/07/dna-testing-frees-man-death-row.Thompson, A. M., Molina, O. R., & Levett, L. M. (2012). AFTER EXONERATION: AN INVESTIGATION OF STIGMA AND WRONGFULLY CONVICTED PERSONS. Albany Law Review, 75(3), 1373-1413