Man exonerated after 16 years on Louisiana’s death row dies of COVID-19

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A man who spent nearly 16 years on Louisiana’s death row for murder, only to be exonerated by DNA evidence in 2012, has died of COVID-19.

New Orleans native Damon Thibodeaux, 47, died Aug. 31 in a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, according to his obituary. He lived 3,260 days as a free man after being cleared of the 1996 rape and murder of 14-year-old Crystal Marie Champagne.

Crystal, who was Thibodeaux’s step-cousin, vanished after visiting a grocery store near her family’s Westwego apartment July 19, 1996. Her body was found the following day under the Huey P. Long Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River about 5 miles from the apartment complex where she lived.

She had been beaten and strangled, court records indicate.

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Thibodeaux was the 142nd death row inmate who was exonerated of the crime for which he was sentenced to die, according to the Innocence Project. He was also the 300th inmate cleared through DNA evidence.

He’d spent all but about a year of his prison time in solitary confinement, the organization stated on its website.

After his release, Thibodeaux became an advocate for the wrongfully incarcerated. He initially moved to Minnesota to begin his life anew.

“He embraced his new life free from bars, chains and constant surveillance,” Thibodeaux’s family wrote in his obituary.

His time on death row haunted him, however. Thibodeaux’s loved ones said he was plagued by nightmares of solitary confinement.

“The looming fear of execution came back to him,” the obituary read. “During his time on death row, two men from Louisiana’s death row were executed and he had to listen as men he knew were walked to their death.”

Thibodeaux’s faith in God helped him through the challenges of rebuilding relationships with loved ones, including the son he didn’t know.

“Damon met these challenges with a deep well of positivity,” his family wrote. “Despite what had happened to him, Damon continued to look forward, re-forging relationships with his family and gathering about him many friends, who considered him family.”

Thibodeaux earned his GED and became a long-haul trucker. He also spoke across the U.S. and beyond on the dangers of wrongful convictions and the death penalty.

He ultimately settled down in Texas with family. His claim for financial compensation for his wrongful conviction was still pending at the time of his death.

One last haul

“The best part of my day, no matter how good the rest of my day is, is when I wake up every morning and I don’t see those bars,” Thibodeaux told KARE in Minneapolis in 2013, a few months after his release.

Thibodeaux — who had gotten his first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine the day before leaving on his final trucking job — was passing through Jacksonville early last month when he ended up at a hospital in excruciating pain. He was soon diagnosed with the virus.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that he spent about three weeks in and out of the intensive care unit. Back home in Texas, his mother, Cynthia Thibodeaux, also fell ill with COVID-19. She slowly recovered, the paper said.

Thibodeaux seemed to be recovering, as well, and was expected to soon be released.

“Bro, I’m ready to get out of this place and come home,” Thibodeaux told his brother, David Thibodeaux, in a phone call.

A few hours later, David Thibodeaux got a call from the hospital, where his brother’s lungs had collapsed, the Star Tribune reported. His heart had stopped, and the medical staff was unable to get it going again.

“My heart sunk,” David Thibodeaux told the paper. “I wasn’t just being asked to let my brother go. You’re asking me to let my best friend go.”

Steve Kaplan, the retired Minneapolis-based attorney who led Thibodeaux’s appellate defense, had also helped his former client get back on his feet after his release.

“It’s so unfair,” Kaplan said about Thibodaux’s death. “I’m struggling to make peace with it, but you can’t.”

Will Francome, who featured Thibodeaux in a 2017 documentary titled “The Penalty,” told Buzzfeed News that Thibodeaux’s death so soon after his release from prison is tragic.

“It’s just an absolutely tragedy that someone was wrongfully put on death row for so long, and (it took) so much resilience and so much effort on so many people’s parts to get him off death row,” Francome said. “It’s just such a tragedy that he’s taken from us before his time.”

In a Facebook post, Francome said those who got to know and love Thibodeaux were devastated by his death.

“Over the years we got to watch him settle back into life, and he was always kind and enthusiastic for the chance at life that he had regained,” the post read. “We will always cherish that time we had together, and our thoughts are with his family.”

A visit with family

Thibodeaux was a 22-year-old offshore deckhand in July 1996 when he visited the home that Crystal Champagne shared with her parents, Dawn and C.J. Champagne, and her 12-year-old sister, Samantha, at the Tanglewood Apartments. Thibodeaux’s mother had previously been married to Dawn Champagne’s brother, making Dawn his step-aunt.

She and her family befriended Thibodeaux when he arrived in Westwego a month before the murder.

“He just seemed to be an ordinary person,” Champagne told “48 Hours” in 2014.

According to court records and the Innocence Project, Thibodeaux had come in from a stint offshore on July 18 and was hanging around the Champagne home. He stayed overnight and the next day, a Friday, he ran errands with C.J. Champagne and bought rollerblades to go rollerblading that afternoon with Crystal and Samantha.

Around 5:15 p.m., Crystal left for the supermarket. Her family never saw her alive again.

“Had she asked you for a ride?” CBS’s Erin Moriarty asked Thibodeaux in 2014.

“Yes,” he said.

“And you said, ‘No?’” Moriarty asked.

“I said, ‘No,’” Thibodeaux responded.

A worried Dawn Champagne went to the supermarket that evening looking for her daughter, while Thibodeaux and C.J. Champagne began searching the neighborhood. The search, which included friends and neighbors, continued into the following day.

A friend of the family, Stacy Melancon, and her boyfriend spent the evening of July 20 dropping off fliers with Crystal’s photo at local restaurants and convenience stores. At a Circle K convenience store, two women told Melancon they’d seen a girl matching the missing teen’s description walking on the levee the night before.

The couple went to the area of the levee where the women had seen the girl. In a grassy area under the bridge, Melancon’s boyfriend discovered Crystal’s body.

The girl’s clothing was in disarray, with her top around her shoulders and her shorts and underwear around her ankles. The way she was found was indicative of a possible sexual assault.

A red length of industrial wire was wrapped around her neck. The coroner determined she had been dead for about 24 hours when she was found, putting her death a short time after she left home for the store.

‘I didn’t know I had done it, but I done it’

Even before the slain girl’s body was found, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office investigators had Thibodeaux at the station for questioning. He was there when word came that Crystal had been found dead.

“I was increasingly under the impression that I was not gonna be able to leave,” Thibodeaux told “48 Hours.”

Around 1 a.m., Thibodeaux agreed to take a polygraph exam. Detectives told him he’d failed the test.

“That’s the point where I realized I was never gonna walk out of there,” he said.

Thibodeaux was subjected to nine hours of interrogation, after which he gave a statement confessing to picking Crystal up outside the supermarket and taking her to the levee, where he had sex with her before beating and strangling her to death.

“I didn’t know I had done it, but I done it,” he said during the alleged confession.

Once Thibodeaux had gotten some rest and was fed, however, he recanted his statement. In his 2014 interview with Moriarty, he described the exhaustion that had set in by the time he confessed.

“After not sleeping, not eating ... I’m thinking, ‘Well, OK. I’ll give ‘em what they wanna hear and the evidence’ll come out and it’ll show I didn’t do it, and people will see that,” he said.

That’s not what happened, and the following year, Thibodeaux was convicted based on what he’d told the investigators. It took an hour for jurors to find him guilty.

Because he’d told detectives he killed the teen during a sexual assault, he was sentenced to die and sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

According to the Innocence Project, there were a number of problems with Thibodeaux’s confession.

“Only 54 minutes were recorded out of the entire nine-hour interrogation,” the organization stated.

In addition, his confession did not match the evidence. Thibodeaux told authorities he’d used a clear, white or gray speaker wire to kill Crystal, but her body was found with red wire around her neck.

He also told detectives he’d gotten the wire from the trunk of his car. Investigators had actually found the source of the wire hanging in a nearby tree, according to “48 Hours.”

Other evidence bolstering Thibodeaux’s confession was also problematic. There was no semen or other physical evidence putting the defendant at the scene with the victim.

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“A detective theorized that a sexual assault still could have occurred, and that post-mortem maggot activity had consumed and degraded the evidence,” the Innocence Project reported.

Dr. Fraser Mackenzie, the pathologist who conducted Crystal’s autopsy, laughed at that theory when interviewed for “48 Hours.”

“Is his explanation laughable?” Moriarty asked.

“In my opinion. But I’m knowledgeable,” he said. “For a jury, they’re not knowledgeable.”

Mackenzie said that other than the way the teen’s clothes appeared, there were no signs of sexual assault. There was no semen and no injuries to her body consistent with rape.

The pathologist also put Crystal’s time of death no more than two and a half hours after she left home for the store. Aside from going to his car to smoke marijuana, Thibodeaux was with the girl’s family for that entire time frame.

After learning post-conviction of the discrepancies between the evidence and Thibodeaux’s confession, the doctor signed an affidavit supporting Thibodeaux’s defense.

Two women who were exercising on the levee the night Crystal was slain told police they’d seen a man pacing nervously in the area where her body was later found. They identified Thibodeaux from a photo array and pointed him out in court during his trial.

Thibodeaux’s appellate attorneys later learned, however, that the woman had seen their client’s photo on the news — before picking him out in the photo lineup.

Moreover, the women realized that they’d seen the man on the levee on July 21, the day after Crystal’s body was found. Thibodeaux was already in police custody by then.

“In 2007, based on evidence of Thibodeaux’s innocence, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office initiated a joint reinvestigation with the Innocence Project and the rest of Thibodeaux’s legal team,” the Innocence Project stated. “Several forensic experts concluded that there was no physical evidence connecting Thibodeaux to the murder and that, contrary to Thibodeaux’s statement, the victim had not been sexually assaulted.

“DNA on the cord in the tree, which had tested positive for blood in the original investigation, revealed male DNA that did not belong to Thibodeaux.”

The joint reinvestigation also determined that the state knew before the trial that Thibodeaux’s confession had been coerced.

“The prosecution’s own expert had concluded prior to the original trial that Thibodeaux falsely confessed based on fear of the death penalty, but this information was never shared with the defense,” the project’s website stated.

Thibodeaux’s conviction was overturned and he was set free in September 2012.

Watch Thibodeaux and his attorneys speak about his release below, courtesy of CBS News.

Those who knew him well marveled at Thibodeaux’s resilience and optimism, according to the Star Tribune. No matter what he’d been through in life, either before or after his incarceration, he was not bitter.

His brother recalled the joy he experienced doing the little things, like watching children play baseball or working alongside his brother to rebuild a 1974 Dodge Dart.

“Everybody got to see how big of a heart he had,” David Thibodeaux told the newspaper. “He proved to everyone that he wasn’t the monster that they made him out to be.”

The grieving brother recalled listening over the phone as a Florida medical team tried in vain to restart that heart. A Marine veteran familiar with combat training, David Thibodeaux knew after 45 minutes that his brother wasn’t coming back.

He told the Star Tribune that the faith he and his brother shared is helping him come to terms with his loss.

“I believe Damon is truly home and has found peace that he couldn’t find in the flesh,” Thibodeaux said.