A little after 4 a.m. on July 21, 1996, Damon Thibodeaux, a deckhand on a Mississippi River workboat, cracked at the end of a nine-hour interrogation and confessed to the brutal rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne.
“I didn’t know that I had done it,” Thibodeaux said at one point, according to a police transcript. “But I done it.”
Before that day was over, Thibodeaux had recanted his confession, telling his court-appointed lawyer that he told police what they wanted to hear in response to threats of death by lethal injection and his grief over the death of his cousin. Nonetheless, Thibodeaux was later convicted of both crimes and sentenced to die.
Now, after more than 15 years spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement on death row at Louisiana’s Angola prison farm, Thibodeaux is free.
Judge Patrick McCabe — who presided over the original trial in 1997 — issued a sealed order on Thursday vacating the conviction. With Thibodeaux’s release Friday, he became the 300th wrongly convicted person and 18th death-row inmate exonerated in the United States substantially on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the New York-based Innocence Project, which provides legal counsel to prisoners it believes can be exonerated through DNA testing.