A judge has ruled that exonerated former death row inmate Damon Thibodeaux will have to prove his “factual innocence” in court in order to be compensated by the state for wrongful imprisonment but that other legal burdens requested by the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office are moot at this time.
Thibodeaux spent 15 years on death row for the 1996 rape and strangulation death of Crystal Champagne in Bridge City before being cleared in 2012 by the Innocence Project and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick on the basis of a re-examination of DNA and other evidence. He is seeking $330,000 from the state.
His attorneys contend the investigation that freed him should be enough to make the process of seeking compensation fairly perfunctory, but Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office contends that Thibodeaux has not proven his factual innocence, as it says is required by law.
In a three-page ruling issued late Friday, Judge Lee Faulkner, of 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna, said Thibodeaux’s exoneration does not prove his factual innocence and that he will have to provide the necessary documents and recitation of facts by making specific citations to the existing record.
“Although Thibodeaux has provided alleged facts that led to the joint motion to vacate his conviction,” Faulkner wrote, “there is no specific citation made to the existing record that the court could rely on to determine Thibodeaux’s factual innocence.”
Faulkner wrote further that “factual innocence can be determined upon reviewing the facts presented in Thibodeaux’s petition, if he provides specific citations in the existing record for these facts.”
Further motions, including one from the state that says much of the evidence that freed Thibodeaux is inadmissible in the compensation proceeding, are moot until Thibodeaux’s attorneys make his case by entering the facts pertaining to exoneration into the record, the judge said.
“If Thibodeaux meets his burden of showing factual innocence, the state in a contradictory hearing will have the opportunity to rebut the evidence,” Faulkner wrote.
The compensation hearing is scheduled for next month.
The state law creating the compensation fund says an applicant for money must prove “he is factually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted,” the AG’s Office has argued. Thibodeaux’s attorneys responded that this provision was intended only to rule out people whose convictions were overturned on legal and procedural technicalities, not to force petitioners like Thibodeaux to prove their innocence.
They said the involvement of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office in the investigation that freed Thibodeaux, followed by Connick’s decision not to order a new trial but to get the conviction and sentence vacated, should be enough to qualify Thibodeaux for what they contend should be a relatively brief and uncomplicated process.
They have said the state is being unfairly obstructionist — an accusation the Attorney General’s Office has denied.
Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark told Faulkner earlier that the law has always intended the process to include what is known as a contradictory hearing and that Thibodeaux enjoys no presumption of innocence because he’s seeking restitution, not being tried for a crime.
Faulkner did not rule on the state’s motion contending that key components of the investigation that led to Thibodeaux’s 2012 exoneration — including the determination that his confession was wrongful and coerced and that there were problems with eyewitness testimony — should be ruled inadmissible for the August hearing.