Attorneys for Damon Thibodeaux, an exonerated former death row inmate now seeking restitution from the state, have formally laid out their case that he was coerced into falsely confessing to a rape and murder by Jefferson Parish interrogators who ignored contradictory statements and evidence that indicated he didn’t commit the crime.
In new court filings, which include the findings of a joint investigation between the New York-based Project Innocence and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, the attorneys also attack the testimony of two eyewitnesses and include the results of forensic tests that found none of Thibodeaux’s DNA at the crime scene.
Judge Lee Faulkner, of 24th Judicial District, ruled late last month that Thibodeaux needs to prove his “factual innocence” if he wants money from the state’s Innocence Compensation Fund. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office contends Thibodeaux was never proven factually innocent of the crime, as it says is required by state law.
Thibodeaux is seeking $330,000 from the state, along with unspecified money for job training, counseling and in-state higher education.
In response to Faulkner’s ruling, attorneys Herbert Larson and Sara Johnson laid out what they called unconstitutional and illegal interrogation methods used by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, which was run by former Sheriff Harry Lee at the time of the 1996 murder of 14-year-old Crystal Champagne in Bridge City.
Thibodeaux’s 2012 exoneration rested largely on expert analysis, conducted after his conviction, that found his confession was false.
The petition filed Friday by his attorneys laid out 15 instances where Thibodeaux’s confession, which he gave after a nine-hour interrogation without an attorney, allegedly conflicted with forensic evidence. They included Thibodeaux’s saying that he raped Champagne, ejaculated, struck her with his hand and choked her with a white wire.
The petition cites testimony and other evidence in the record that there was no evidence Champagne was raped, that there were no seminal fluids in or around her body, that she had skull fractures that couldn’t have been caused by a human hand and that the ligature used to strangle her was red.
Thibodeaux, who was 19 at the time, had an IQ of 79 and a history of childhood abuse that rendered him pliable in conflict situations with authority figures, according to his lawyers. They also said that by the time he confessed, he had gone 35 hours without rest after helping the family search for Champagne, who was his cousin.
The petition says that among other wrongful tactics, investigators with the Sheriff’s Office introduced information into the interrogation that was unknown to Thibodeaux; refused him access to an attorney; made him believe he was not free to leave at any time; and told him he had to take a polygraph test in order to clear himself, after which they told him he failed it, which they said proved he was lying.
The petition says the transcript of the confession shows a third interrogator arrived later after viewing the crime scene and fed Thibodeaux additional details. That investigator later returned to the crime scene in the daylight, several hours after Thibodeaux confessed, and found evidence the wire used to strangle Champagne may have come from a nearby tree, not Thibodeaux’s car, and was thicker and a different color than the one he described.
Thibodeaux’s attorneys also said the two lead investigators were present for the autopsy and should have known the results contradicted as many as five key elements of Thibodeaux’s confession.
“Even as 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,” Thibodeaux’s lawyers wrote, noting that their client was indicted by a Jefferson Parish grand jury just four days after he was arrested.
Lawyers with the Attorney General’s Office have argued that the circumstances of the confession do not automatically render it false, and they have noted that the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the conviction on appeal.
Asked for comment Monday, the Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying that in order to be compensated, “Thibodeaux must prove that he is factually innocent. We are simply holding him to that legal standard.”
No date has been set for the compensation hearing.
A call to the Sheriff’s Office was referred to attorney Daniel Martiny, who could not be reached for comment. While the Sheriff’s Office is not involved in the petition for compensation, Thibodeaux has sued the office for violating his rights. That case is expected be heard in federal court later this year.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.