A man who has spent a third of his life on death row after being wrongly convicted of murder has died of COVID-19, years after being released.
Damon Thibodeaux died on August 31, nine years after DNA evidence exonerated him from a murder conviction and released him from solitary confinement at the Angola prison in Louisiana.
“Damon is one of the most unique people I have ever met,” Steve Kaplan, former Thibodeaux lawyer, told USA TODAY.
“If you met Damon, you wouldn’t know what he went through.
Thibodeaux was arrested in 1996 for the murder of his 14-year-old cousin Crystal Champagne in New Orleans.
He was in town in Texas to attend a few family weddings and while he was there he got a job on a barge that plied the Mississippi River.
After three weeks on the barge, Thibodeaux visited the Champagne family when she disappeared. She was found the next day, five miles from the house and brutally beaten, according to Kaplan.
Kaplan said Thibodeaux was questioned by the Jefferson Parish Police Department for nine hours and ultimately made a false confession. The confession led to a conviction for capital murder and a death sentence.
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On death row, Thibodeaux was locked in his cell 23 hours a day. He began a routine of cleaning, exercising and reading the Bible.
“He created a life outside of the cell,” Kaplan said.
In 1999, the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson and Byron took up his case with lawyers from the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana.
Kaplan got involved in the case in 2001 and the Innocence Project of New York City joined him in 2002, according to Kaplan. They reconsidered the case and Thibodeaux’s conviction was overturned.
After 16 years behind bars, he became a free man on September 28, 2012.
Thibodeaux was met by his lawyers, family and a 20-year-old son he hadn’t seen for 17 years. He moved to Minneapolis and lived with Kaplan and his wife for a few months before finding his own apartment. He later started driving trucks on the highway.
“He started driving across the country, which was the ultimate freedom,” Kaplan said.
Turning his pain into a goal, Thibodeaux became active with a Philadelphia-based nonprofit called Witness to Innocence. Damon visited law schools, colleges and churches to discuss his life on death row.
Thibodeaux’s life on death row has been featured in several documentaries, including “The Penalty” and “One for Ten,” a series about innocence and death row.
He then reconnected with his brother David Thibodeaux and had recently bought land with him in Texas before his fight with COVID-19.
Damon was hospitalized in Jacksonville, Florida for a month before he died. Kaplan said they believe he is improving enough to be released.
“When they took oxygen out of her, her lungs collapsed and her heart stopped,” he said.
“He was only 47, so he wasted 16 years of his life behind bars for something he didn’t do,” Kaplan said. “The resilience and strength of spirit to endure what he went through on death row takes a mental strength beyond my comprehension.”
Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalasha. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.