A state district judge will decide next week whether a freed former death row inmate will effectively need to prove his innocence at a hearing next month in order to be compensated by the state or whether the overturning of his conviction is sufficient evidence that he did not commit the rape and murder that landed him in jail for 15 years.
After hearing oral arguments Friday in 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna from attorneys for Damon Thibodeaux and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, Judge Lee Faulkner Jr. said he will issue a ruling sometime next week.
Thibodeaux is seeking $330,000 from the state’s compensation fund for wrongfully incarcerated people for the time he spent in jail after being convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of 14-year-old Crystal Champagne in Bridge City.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, however, filed two motions earlier this year disputing Thibodeaux’s claim to the money.
One motion said the state doesn’t consider Thibodeaux has been proven to be “factually innocent” and that to get restitution he should have to prove in court that he wasn’t involved in the crime.
The other motion contended 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.
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 argues. Thibodeaux’s attorneys respond that this provision is 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’ve said the involvement of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick 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.
With Thibodeaux observing the proceedings quietly from the audience Friday, Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark told Faulkner 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.
“Make no mistake, this is a difficult burden, to prove something didn’t happen,” he said.
But Sara Johnson, one of Thibodeaux’s attorneys, said the attorney general’s approach “very clearly shows that their intention is to retry him, and that is not why we’re here.”
Johnson attacked the attorney general’s claim that the DNA evidence did not exonerate Thibodeaux because the real killer was not identified. She said there were 82 pieces of evidence at the “gruesome” crime scene where Champagne was raped and strangled to death and that none of it contained Thibodeaux’s DNA.
As for the state’s motion to limit the evidence Thibodeaux can use, most of the debate focused on the analysis of Michael Welner, a national expert on false confessions and the conditions and interrogation methods that produce them.
Thibodeaux was initially brought in for questioning because he was Champagne’s step-cousin and had seen her shortly before she disappeared. But while he was there, the girl’s body was found, and investigators questioned him as a suspect, grilling the young man described as emotionally frail for nine hours. The post-conviction investigation found the confession, which Thibodeaux recanted almost immediately, was riddled with inconsistencies and came only after investigators told him — correctly — that he had failed a polygraph exam.
Clark said Welner’s analysis is of no value to the court because it doesn’t speak to the overall rate at which false confessions occur, and fellow Assistant Attorney General Emma Devillier said just because a confession is considered coerced doesn’t mean it’s necessarily false.
Herbert Larson, the other attorney representing Thibodeaux, told Faulkner that courts routinely accept Drug Enforcement Agency agents as expert witnesses on drug trafficking without making them demonstrate the predictive value and “known error rate” of their analysis.
Faulkner’s decisions will set the stage for the final hearing next month.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.