The executioner haunts Damon Thibodeaux.
Nightmares yank him back to the 8-by-10-foot cell that confines him to solitary 23 hours a day. Loneliness overwhelms him; despair crushes his spirit. He wants to scream: “I’m innocent.” He knows it won’t matter.
The guards come for him, strap him to the table and push a needle into his arm. A lethal serum flows into his veins. Soon it will be over.
He jolts awake, his heart pounding.
The prison chains are gone and he’s lying in his one-room Minneapolis apartment, 1,200 miles from the Louisiana penitentiary where he waited to die for a murder he didn’t commit.Video (02:15): Thibodeaux begins again and finds freedom on the road.
Thibodeaux is free from death row. Now, after more than 15 years in prison, will he be able to find his place in a world that raced ahead without him? Can he break free of a past that for so long kept him in chains?
A girl goes missing
It was a hot Louisiana summer day on Thursday, July 18, 1996, and Thibodeaux was a 22-year-old deckhand on a Mississippi River barge. After work that day, he went to visit relatives — Dawn and C.J. Champagne. He had come to New Orleans three weeks earlier for a wedding, then stayed to be closer to his mother and his sister and to work on the river.
After drinking late into the night, Thibodeaux slept at the Champagnes’ apartment. He was still there at 5:15 Friday afternoon when their 14-year-old daughter, Crystal Champagne, left to walk to a nearby Winn-Dixie supermarket.
She never returned.
Thibodeaux and the family scoured the neighborhood through that night and into the next day while the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation. Thibodeaux had returned to his mother’s home to sleep when sheriff’s deputies knocked on his door, searching for answers.
Thibodeaux wanted to find Crystal, his step-cousin, as much as anyone and agreed to go with them and answer questions.
Minutes later, the missing-person case became a murder investigation. A former neighbor of the Champagnes found the girl’s body in a wooded area along the Mississippi River beneath the Huey P. Long Bridge, about 5 miles from the family’s home in Westwego.
Thibodeaux, whose only previous run-ins with the law were for two misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions, waived his right to an attorney and spent the next 2½ hours sitting alone in a room, anxious and exhausted. He hadn’t eaten or slept much over the past 30 hours.
Court records and interviews reveal what happened next. The investigators hammered him about the girl’s death. When he said he knew nothing about it, they accused him of lying. They told him that Crystal’s family didn’t corroborate his whereabouts or his story. They said the evidence showed he raped and murdered the girl. They suggested he might not remember, that sometimes people black out and kill their victims without even knowing it.
And the polygraph test that he took at 1 a.m.? They told him he failed it.
Thibodeaux fell to the floor, spent and afraid.
Investigators told him he would be labeled a child rapist and murderer in prison. They graphically described a three-drug execution cocktail that would drip into his veins and burn. Confess, they said, and he might get leniency.
“They were never going to let me out until I gave them what they wanted,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s not about what you believe you did, it’s about trying to get away.”
No evidence, but a confession
At 4:40 a.m. Sunday, after nine hours of interrogation, Thibodeaux confessed, stitching together a story with details he gleaned from his interrogators.
“I didn’t — I didn’t know that I had done it,” he told investigators. “I would say that I got scared, so I killed her.”
He passed out on the way to jail. “When I woke up, I knew the damage was done,” he said. “You can scream as loud as you want, but no one is hearing.”
Within 36 hours, new facts about the crime emerged — details that didn’t match Thibodeaux’s confession.
He confessed to rape; the autopsy showed no sexual contact. He said he used his hands to choke her; the autopsy showed she wasn’t choked by hand. He said he hit her with his hand; the autopsy showed she was bludgeoned with a heavy object, her skull fractured. He said he left her lying face down; she was left face up.
Six weeks later, forensic results on 86 pieces of physical evidence confirmed there was no rape, no sexual contact and nothing that connected Thibodeaux to the girl, her body, clothing or crime scene.
But prosecutors had his confession to rape and murder.
“A confession is the most powerful, incriminating evidence law enforcement can obtain,” said Steve Kaplan, a Minneapolis lawyer who later became one of Thibodeaux’s lead post-conviction attorneys. “Once the jury hears that confession, you’re 95 percent on your way to conviction. The average juror can’t believe anyone would give a false confession, especially to a heinous crime.”
But since 1989, the Innocence Project has found that 31 percent of 330 DNA exonerees were convicted based on false confessions, admissions or guilty pleas.
Many who falsely confess said they did so thinking it would put a stop to a grueling interrogation. They believed the truth would come out later.
Thibodeaux’s trial began on a Monday — Sept. 29, 1997, a little more than a year after his arrest. That Friday, the jury deliberated an hour and returned with its verdict: guilty of first degree murder.
The words numbed Thibodeaux.
The next day, the jury found him guilty of aggravated rape while murdering the 14-year-old. He was sentenced to die.
Shackled and riding in the back of a squad car to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola., he kept his eyes on the night sky. He never expected to see stars again.
Making peace with death
Amid the monotony and isolation of death row, Thibodeaux spiraled into a void he couldn’t escape. Like a zoo animal, he paced. Five steps each way around the cell — one, two, three, four, five, turn. When the sweltering summer heat pushed the temperature past 100, he sat motionless for hours.
“It’s about as lonely as it gets. You miss the sense of touch,” he said. “The walls start to close in on you. You watch friends walk away to be executed. One day they would come for me.”
Not wanting to prolong the misery, Thibodeaux decided against launching a string of appeals that likely would keep him languishing on death row for decades.
“The grave is the only way out,” he said.
Then Denise LeBoeuf, an attorney working for the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, walked into his life.
She sat in the prison visiting room, looking at a man who seemed more like a boy behind large wire-rimmed glasses. He was thin, depressed, fragile-looking, she said. She was convinced Thibodeaux was innocent and wanted a chance to prove it.
He decided to let her try.
Even after Thibodeaux’s routine appeals were denied, LeBoeuf refused to give up. Others joined forces with her and colleague Caroline Tillman. The Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron, having recently lost a death-row case in Louisiana, dedicated its resources to the fight on a pro bono basis. The Innocence Project and its co-founder, New York lawyer Barry Scheck, also signed on.
For the first time in Thibodeaux’s life there were people who believed in him, and were ready to fight to save him.
Thibodeaux got up one morning and sat on the edge of his prison cot, staring at the cigarette in one hand, the lighter in the other.
“Man, I’m tired of this,” he thought, and tossed the cigarettes. He began exercising.
He counted out push-ups, jumping jacks, squats and situps. He threw his trial transcript and some magazines in a laundry bag and lifted the weight. During the three hours a week he was allowed in the yard, he ran within the confines of the fence.
Read the Bible. Make coffee using a handkerchief for a filter. Clean the cell. Brush teeth. Wash face. Exercise. Read. Do puzzles. Exercise. Shower. Clean the cell again. Listen to the radio. Read.
Routine gave him focus; religion and faith in his legal team gave him the will to survive another day. “We all have to have something to believe in,” he said.