Proof of innocence a hard road for many freed Louisiana inmates seeking state compensation _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Attorney Barry Scheck with Damon Thibodeaux who was rereleased from Angola Thursday, September 27, 2012.

In 2012, after enduring 15 years on death row, Damon Thibodeaux walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola a free man, basking in a legal victory that seemed improbable for a man who purportedly had confessed to murder.

DNA testing had failed to tie Thibodeaux to the 1996 killing of 14-year-old Crystal Champagne, and as the case began to crumble, Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick asked a judge to vacate the conviction “in the interest of justice.”

Calling the alleged confession unreliable, prosecutors appeared to be on the same team as Thibodeaux’s attorneys, investigating his claims of innocence together and filing a joint motion that secured his immediate release.

Connick, in a recent interview with the CBS News program “48 Hours,” affirmed his approach to the case as “what should’ve been done,” despite the potential political risks.

But even after clearing his name and escaping the specter of execution, Thibodeaux, 39, has met unexpected resistance in his effort to be compensated for the 16 years, two months and eight days he spent behind bars.

In new court documents, state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has made clear his office does not want Thibodeaux to receive any money from the state’s Innocence Compensation Fund. He defends the troubled investigation of Champagne’s death and asserts that prosecutors never acknowledged Thibodeaux was “factually innocent.”

“There was simply no longer proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Thibodeaux was guilty,” Caldwell’s assistants wrote, opposing Thibodeaux’s request for $330,000 for his wrongful conviction.

Caldwell’s position has drawn the battle lines for what promises to be a bitter legal battle in 24th Judicial District Court.

“I am extremely disappointed and very surprised that the attorney general would take this position in light of what (Connick) did and said,” Herb Larson, one of Thibodeaux’s attorneys, said Wednesday.

A Caldwell spokeswoman said the office had no comment beyond the court filings.

Connick did not respond to a request for comment; his first assistant, Steve Wimberly, said the District Attorney’s Office would not comment because Caldwell is handling the proceedings. “It’s their case,” Wimberly said.

Louisiana law allows compensation of $25,000 per year for wrongful incarceration — capped at 10 years, or $250,000, regardless of how long an innocent person was imprisoned — and up to an additional $80,000 for “loss of life opportunities.” At least two dozen Louisiana exonerees have been awarded some payment, according to interviews and state Treasury Department data.

For Thibodeaux to qualify for payment, a judge must determine he is “factually innocent,” which, under state law, means a defendant “did not commit the crime for which he was convicted and incarcerated, nor did he commit any crime based upon the same set of facts used in his original conviction.”

“Thibodeaux has a difficult burden,” Assistant Attorneys General Emma Devillier and Colin Clark wrote in a court filing last week. “He must prove a negative — that he could not have been criminally involved in the murder of Crystal Champagne.”

Steve Kaplan, a Minneapolis attorney who helped Thibodeaux win his freedom, said he was disappointed that the attorney general appears to want to re-litigate the facts of the case even after Connick, acting on the state’s behalf, dropped the charges against Thibodeaux and reopened the investigation into Champagne’s death.

The two sides disagree on a host of issues, according to court documents, including whether Thibodeaux failed a polygraph in 1996.

“They want us to go back in there and prove what we proved over a 14-year period all over again, and, in the meantime, the purpose of the (innocence compensation) statute is being defeated and made illusory,” Kaplan said. “Can you imagine 15 years in solitary confinement — 23 hours a day?”

The opposing sides offered competing characterizations of the joint investigation between the District Attorney’s Office and Thibodeaux’s legal team, which began in 2007 and was described by Connick’s office as “a transparent process that included mutual exchanges of evidence and investigatory findings.”

Thibodeaux’s attorneys said the investigation turned up evidence of misconduct by detectives and “proved beyond any doubt” that his confession was coerced during a nine-hour interrogation.

They cited a host of experts who reviewed the evidence and concluded Champagne had, in fact, not been raped and was not slain in the manner Thibodeaux described in his confession. The DA’s own psychiatric expert, they said, “conducted an extensive series of interviews” and concluded Thibodeaux had given a false confession.

“They looked at everything,” Kaplan said of Connick’s office. “We went through endless rounds of communication, DNA testing (of clothing), forensic analysis. If there had been any evidence pointing toward Damon Thibodeaux’s guilt, (Connick) would not have joined with us in a motion to vacate the conviction and immediately release Damon.”

Thibodeaux’s attorneys contend the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office’s original investigation of Champagne’s strangling was fraught with missteps.

Champagne disappeared on a Friday afternoon in July 1996 after leaving her family’s Westwego apartment to walk to a nearby Winn-Dixie. Thibodeaux, 22 at the time and a step-cousin of the girl, had recently returned to town and had found work as an offshore deckhand. He had been at the family’s apartment the day Champagne went missing and helped family and friends search for her.

The next evening, John Tomlinson, a family friend who had been handing out fliers about the missing girl in Bridge City, discovered Champagne’s body on a concrete slab under the Huey P. Long Bridge. A red wire, which the authorities determined was used to strangle her, had been wrapped around her neck, and she had been struck in the face so forcefully that she lost a tooth.

Thibodeaux voluntarily reported to the Sheriff’s Office to give a statement while Champagne was still missing. The case turned into a homicide investigation as he sat there, and detectives began interrogating him about the killing. He denied involvement but, after several hours, gave what the Louisiana Supreme Court, in upholding his conviction, referred to as “a full confession.”

Thibodeaux’s lawyers say he was deprived of his right to an attorney during the interrogation, “fed” information about the crime, given false reports of what other witnesses had said, denied the opportunity to rest and asked “highly suggestive and leading questions” during a nine-hour interrogation. Most important, they said, his confession was inconsistent with the actual murder — a fact they claim investigators chose to ignore.

“Even as the JPSO detectives continued to obtain additional evidence that proved Damon Thibodeaux’s innocence and that proved that his ‘confession’ was false, they continued to press for his prosecution and conviction,” the attorneys wrote.

The Attorney General’s Office, however, said the confession was “lawfully obtained.”

“Thibodeaux argues conflicting sides of the same argument — that the confession was false because its details were contradicted by facts and evidence and that officers knew of such contradictions,” and on the other hand that “officers fed him said details or forced him to confess (with an account that had said contradictions),” state prosecutors wrote.

In 2012, Connick, the district attorney, offered a sharply different view of the confession, which had been the centerpiece of Thibodeaux’s conviction.

“As district attorney, it is my duty to make every effort to ensure that convictions are based on reliable evidence,” Connick said at the time. “I have concluded that the primary evidence in this case, the confession, is unreliable. Without the confession the conviction cannot stand, and therefore, in the interest of justice, it must be vacated.”