By William Fisher
I told this story to a few friends last week. They were as blown away as I was. They called it the only "good news" story all week. Since "good news" stories are few and far between in my line of work, let me share it with you.
At one end, it's a story about corruption, cruelty, bad police work, and a criminal justice system that's broken beyond repair and grows more sclerotic by the day, and the rage triggered by injustice "in plain sight" being ignored by authorities.
So far, doesn't sound much like a good news story? Right? Stay with me.
The good news parts of the story are about the determination of the human spirit, the compassion to want to correct injustice, intimate knowledge of the law and all its hazardous potholes and alleys, and the toughness to never give up.
Fifteen years ago, in 1997, a 24-year-old Louisiana man was convicted of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step cousin, Chrystal Champagne.
The case was had all the earmarks of a slam-dunk: The young man, Damon A. Thibodeaux , had confessed. He admitted his guilt after nine hours of non-stop interrogation by police. He later recanted that confession.
He was sentenced to death. He says he almost gave up hope. "But if you give up hope in here, you begin to die," he said.
He never gave up. And that's one of the main reasons this young man, now 38, walked out of Angola Prison last week, a free man, after an order by a Jefferson Parish court overturning the conviction and dismissing the indictment. Jefferson Parish includes most of the suburbs of New Orleans .
In walking out of what he had to call home after almost 15 years, Damon A. Thibodeaux became the 18th person to serve time on Louisiana's death row, only to be exonerated later by DNA evidence and a bunch of remarkable pro bono lawyers who refused to cave, even facing the entire panoply of prison officials, judges, and other officers of the court.
These brave men and women spent 12 years interviewing figures involved in the case, reading thousands of pages of testimony, and reviewing DNA tests that became more credible as the science itself matured.
Mr. Thibodeaux enjoyed one asset that's not very often present when the requirement is for a full post-mortem of a case: The District Attorney, U.S. District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr. Connick joined the Innocence Project and Thibodeaux's other counsel in agreeing to overturn Thibodeaux's conviction and death sentence after DNA and other evidence proved that he had not committed the crime for which he had been coerced into falsely confessing.
A more conventional scenario finds prosecutors unwilling to re-test DNA samples because of the cost involved, or saying they've been lost. Frequently, both statements are untrue. Fear of professional embarrassment -- and collateral career damage -- is the real reason for their opacity.
That opacity was not part of the Thibodeaux case. That fact and his release gave him the honor of being the 300th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the US.
Listen to Barry Scheck -- whom you may remember as the DNA wizard at the OJ Simpson trial: "Like the other 299 DNA exonerees, there is no question that Mr. Thibodeaux suffered terribly because of the faults in the criminal justice system," said Scheck, who is a founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law.
"But the incredible cooperation that we have received from District Attorney Connick is a powerful illustration of how transformative DNA evidence has been to the criminal justice system. District Attorneys now recognize that the system doesn't always get it right, and many, like District Attorney Connick and his team, are committed to getting to the truth. This case can serve as a model to other district attorneys around the country who are interested in developing conviction integrity units to review old cases."
Thibodeaux echoed that sentiment, adding "I'm grateful to Mr. Connick and his people for studying my case and for their commitment to justice. I'm looking forward to life as a free man again, but I have 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."
Crystal Champagne's family last saw her alive on the afternoon of July 19, 1996 when she left the family's Westwego Apartment for a Winn-Dixie at the nearby strip mall. After she did not return home when expected, her family, several friends, and law enforcement began a search for her that ended on the following evening with the discovery of her body along the levee in Bridge City.
That same evening, law enforcement began interrogating and interviewing potential witnesses, including Thibodeaux. After some nine hours of interrogation, he provided an apparent confession to raping and murdering the victim. That confession was virtually the sole basis for his conviction and death sentence in October 1997.
Thibodeaux's legal team included Denise LeBoeuf and Caroline Tillman of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana (LeBoeuf is currently Director of the ACLU's Death Penalty Project and Tillman is now an attorney with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans); Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project; and Steve Kaplan and Richard H. Kyle, Jr., of the Fredrikson & Byron law firm in Minneapolis.
Assisted by several DNA and world-class forensic scientists, homicide and police interrogation methods expert Thomas Streed, PhD, and private investigators, they obtained evidence demonstrating that Thibodeaux was not the murderer, that the victim had not been raped, and that she had also not been murdered in the manner that Thibodeaux had described after some nine hours of interrogation.
In 2007, Thibodeaux's team approached Connick and his staff, and presented the then-known evidence of actual innocence to them. Both sides then began a cooperative process that was rigorous and transparent, including mutual exchanges of evidence and information. Connick was assisted primarily by Steve Wimberly, Esq., and Chief Investigator, Vince Lamia, who reviewed the evidence and actively participated in both the joint investigation and the District Attorney's own independent review of the case.
During the course of this joint investigation, the parties conducted multiple rounds of DNA and forensic evidence testing of the crime scene evidence and the other physical evidence and interviewed numerous fact witnesses. This additional evidence confirmed that the confession that Thibodeaux had given was false in every aspect. In addition, the joint investigation included a thorough examination of the reasons why Thibodeaux had falsely confessed. His lawyers have promised to make this information public at a later time.
The joint effort has also given rise to potential new leads and suspects. Because, however, the investigation into the murder is ongoing, this information cannot be disclosed at present.
"This is a tragic illustration of why law enforcement must record the entire interrogation of any witness or potential suspect in any investigation involving a serious crime," said one of Thibodeaux's legal team.
"When juries learn that the accused has apparently confessed, they invariably have a difficult time questioning the reliability and truthfulness of the confession--unless they can see the entire interrogation and 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."
Another of his attorneys noted, "This journey to freedom was a long time coming. The solitary conditions that Mr. Thibodeaux was forced to live under as a death row inmate were almost more than he could bear at times, but he never gave up hope that one day he would be free."
"The death penalty is a human rights violation in any case, for anyone. But, there can be no stronger argument against capital punishment than the condemnation of a truly innocent man," said Denise LeBoeuf of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana (LeBoeuf is currently Director of the ACLU's Death Penalty Project.)
LeBoeuf added, "Louisiana came--to use Justice Blackmon's phrase--"perilously close to simple murder' and 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 innocent people have been exonerated from Louisiana's death row, versus just three executions.
The 300 DNA exonerees have served a combined 4013 years in prison, with an average of 13 and a half years each. The real perpetrator was identified in nearly half of the cases, and at least 130 violent crimes could have been prevented if the true perpetrator was initially arrested instead of the wrongly convicted. More than a third of those cleared by DNA have not been compensated for the time they spent wrongly imprisoned.
While DNA testing has been widely available in criminal prosecutions since the late 90s, people convicted as late as 2008 have been cleared by DNA, indicating that this powerful tool will continue to be helpful in proving wrongful convictions for the foreseeable future.
The leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA is eyewitness misidentification, which has played a role in nearly 75 percent of the 300 exonerations. Unvalidated or improper forensic science played a role in approximately half (51 %) of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. False confessions and admissions lead to wrongful convictions in just over a quarter (27%). Informants contributed to wrongful convictions in 18 % of cases.
Thibodeaux is the 18th person who served time on death row to be exonerated by DNA in the U.S. The 18 death row exonerees were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 229 years in prison -- including 202 years on death row -- for crimes they didn't commit. Another 16 were charged with capital crimes but not sentenced to death. Seventeen people were threatened with the death penalty but not ultimately charged with a capital offense.
Louisiana has a well-established reputation as the prison capital of the world. Writing in the Louisiana Times-Picayune, Cindy Chang said, "The hidden engine behind the state's well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt."
She added, "Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations."