Innocents: The Body On The Levee

Damon Thibodeaux spent fifteen years on Louisiana’s death row at Angola prison. He spent all but one hour per day locked in his cell, which was 6 feet by 9 feet. His neighbours were killers and rapists – the worst Louisiana had to offer. The sounds of the condemned haunted the facility as he fell asleep every night… for fifteen years.

Every day Thibodeaux woke up on death row, he knew he was one day closer to his own execution. Each day that passed made it less likely he would ever prove his innocence. Each day was more frustrating than the last. He had confessed to the murder. Even he would have found himself guilty.

When Damon was 22, he worked as a deckhand on the Mississippi. He spent a lot of time with his family, and on July 19th, 1996, that’s exactly what he was doing. At the home of his cousin, Crystal Champagne, he sat with relatives and visited. When Crystal didn’t return from a brief trip to the corner store, the entire family began to worry and set out to search for the 14 year old girl, Damon among them.

They searched all night and through the next day. Over 24 hours of searching later, the body of Crystal Champagne was discovered on a levee, strangled and beaten. Thibodeaux was brought in for questioning.

An exhausted Thibodeaux, who had been awake more than a day and a half straight at this point, denied any involvement in the crime. Detectives decided to give him a polygraph test. When the test was complete, officers informed sleep-deprived Damon that he had failed it, and began interrogating him for nine hours straight. Detectives explicitly described the execution process over and over to Damon and threatened that if he did not confess, he would get the death penalty for sure, citing the failed polygraph. Damon’s fear of capital punishment grew and began to overwhelm him. Finally, Thibodeaux gave them what they wanted: he admitted to raping, beating and strangling his step-cousin with the grey speaker wire he’d had in his car.

Finally, Damon was allowed to sleep and eat after over two days straight of being awake. Once he was rested and able to think clearly again, he recanted his confession, but it was too late. Thibodeaux was charged with the rape and murder of his cousin.

Over the next few days, as the crime scene was processed, details began to emerge that conflicted with Thibodeaux’s confession. A red electrical cord found at the scene had been used to strangle Crystal, not speaker wire. Further, the autopsy revealed she had been beaten with a blunt object, not his fists, as Damon had admitted. There was also no evidence that Crystal had had intercourse in the day prior to her death.

Despite these problems, the case went ahead. Damon was appointed a public defender, a man who used to be a detective, and hoped for the best. Other suspects had included a known paedophile and another man who knew Crystal, who suffered from schizophrenia and had a history of violence, but all eyes on them turned to Thibodeaux as he began to prepare for his trial.

Two witnesses came forward stating that they had seen a man pacing near the body of Crystal Champagne on the day she was found. When shown a photo line-up, both witnesses picked Thibodeaux. This was beginning to look like an open and shut case.

During the trial, the prosecution tried to explain away the lack of evidence for sexual intercourse by suggesting that maggot activity on the freshly dead body had destroyed all traces of semen inside of her. It is the only way they could think to overcome the discrepancy between Thibodeaux’s confession of having raped his cousin, and the fact that the autopsy revealed no evidence of sexual activity.

It took the jurors less than an hour to come back with a guilty verdict. Damon Thibodeaux was sentenced to death and taken to spend the remainder of his days on death row at Louisiana’s most notorious prison, Angola.

Almost immediately, Thibodeaux and his lawyers began the appeals process. For 12 years they fought to clear his name. They interviewed his family who had been present at Crystal’s house with Thibodeaux when the girl had left for the store. They gave him an alibi that left only a handful of minutes where Thibodeaux was not within their sight. Clearly not enough time to commit the crime he had admitted to. His defense team also reconnected with the witnesses who claimed that they had seen Thibodeaux pacing over Crystal’s body. During their conversation with these witnesses, it was discovered that they had seen the man pacing after Thibodeaux was taken into custody, making it impossible that they had seen Thibodeaux.

Thibodeaux’s lawyers poked holes in the prosecution’s case for years, until finally the New Orleans District Attorney agreed to have the blood tested that was found on the cable that strangled and ultimately killed Crystal. The DNA was isolated. It belonged to a man, but it did not match Thibodeaux. To put the final nail in the coffin, an expert testified on Thibodeaux’s behalf that explained that had there been semen present in Crystal’s body, maggot activity could not have destroyed it.

Damon Thibodeaux was exonerated and freed after 15 years on death row. He became the 300th person exonerated by DNA testing. He has since moved to Minnesota to work for the lawyers who freed him. He often gives talks to raise awareness for wrongful convictions and organizations like the Innocence Project and is one of the most written about exonerees in the media.

While the courts did what it could to correct their mistake regarding Thibodeaux’s guilt, there is nothing they can do to fix the fact that Crystal Champagne’s killer was never caught and brought to justice, and may have committed more murders since that day in 1996. It is very realistic to imagine that there could be other families grieving the brutal murder of a loved one due to the sloppy work by detectives and prosecutors in the case against Thibodeaux. The only way to prevent this from happening in the future is to reassess interrogation methods, and have much more strict criteria for introducing a confession as evidence. Interrogations should be recorded from beginning to end. In Thibodeaux’s case, only 54 minutes out of the total nine hour interrogation had been recorded. Lawyers and detectives who purposefully overlook or withhold evidence, should also be disbarred and serve prison sentences.

Further reading:

  1. Innocence Project: Damon Thibodeaux

  2. – Thibodeaux seeks compensation

  3. The Guardian – Louisiana inmate freed after 15 years on death row

  4. The Washington Post – Damon Thibodeaux

This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To be notified when the next one is posted, please fill out to subscribe:

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To read more of these stories, please click here. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.

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