A Former Death Row Inmate Who Was Exonerated Died From COVID

  • A man who spent 15 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, died from COVID-19 last month.
  • Damon Thibodeaux was convicted of murder and rape in 1997, despite no physical evidence tying him to the crime.
  • The Innocence Project memorialized Thibodeaux, calling him “an incredibly kind and gentle person.”

A man who spent 15 years on death row before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2012, died of COVID-19 less than 10 years after his release, according to The Innocence Project and an obituary. 

Damon Thibodeaux, 47, died from COVID-19 on August 31 in Jacksonville, Florida, according to The Times-Picayune.

“The Innocence Project mourns the loss of Damon Thibodeaux, an incredibly kind and gentle person, who spent 16 years wrongly imprisoned in Louisiana,” The Innocence Project said in a tweet

According to the legal organization, which works to exonerate individuals who have been wrongly convicted, Thibodeaux was 22 years old when he was arrested for the murder of his step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, in Louisiana in 1996. Champagne was found strangled to death with a red extension cord wrapped around her neck and signs of a possible sexual assault. 

Thibodeaux became a suspect in the case based on his familial relationship to Champagne, The Innocence Project said, but he denied involvement in her death. He agreed to take a polygraph, but was told he failed the test.

He ended up confessing to sexually assaulting, beating, and murdering Champagne during a nine-hour interrogation, according to the legal organization.

“I didn’t know that I had done it, but I done it,” he said during his confession, according to his obituary.

Less than one hour of the interrogation was recorded and key details of Thibodeaux’s confession did not match evidence from the crime scene, The Innocence Project said. But two eyewitnesses testified they had seem someone pacing near the site where Champagne’s body was found, and chose Thibodeaux from a photo lineup. 

Despite any physical evidence linking him to the crime, Thibodeaux was convicted and sentenced to death.

He spent 15 years on death row in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, before the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office reopened the investigation in 2007, his obituary said. Forensic experts determined Champagne had not been sexually assaulted, despite Thibodeaux’s confession, and blood found on the cord revealed DNA that did not belong to Thibodeaux.

The witnesses who identified Thibodeaux later told investigators they had seen his photo before picking him out of a photo array, and believed they spotted him at the crime scene the day after Champagne’s body was discovered, when Thibodeaux was already in police custody. 

After his release, Thibodeaux earned his high school diploma and gave talks around the country about wrongful conviction reform, his obituary said. He dealt with ongoing nightmares and memories of his time behind bars with the help of his spirituality and a “belief in God,” the memorial said. 

“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,” his obituary said.

According to The Innocence Project, Thibodeaux was never compensated for his time behind bars or more than a decade of lost wages. A claim for compensation was pending at the time of his COVID-related death. 

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