Attorneys for exonerated death row inmate Damon Thibodeaux say the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office is turning what should be a relatively short, straightforward process of compensating their client for the 16 years he spent behind bars into a protracted legal “nightmare” in which the Marrero man has to prove his innocence in what amounts to a “reverse criminal trial.”
The attorneys made their argument in court filings Monday in response to the attorney general’s April request in 24th Judicial District Court that Thibodeaux demonstrate his innocence, a stance Attorney General Buddy Caldwell stood behind Tuesday.
Thibodeaux is seeking $330,000, the maximum amount allowed from the state’s Innocence Compensation Fund.
He was convicted by a Jefferson Parish jury in 1997 of raping and strangling 14-year-old Crystal Champagne under the Huey P. Long Bridge, based primarily on his confession to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and the testimony of two eyewitnesses.
But in the years he sat on death row, Thibodeaux’s case was taken up by several attorneys, including the New York-based Innocence Project.
They went to Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick in 2006, and a rare joint investigation between Connick’s office and Thibodeaux’s lawyers began, focusing primarily on Thibodeaux’s confession but also involving retesting evidence for DNA and reinterviewing witnesses.
In 2012, citing forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner’s analysis that Thibodeaux’s confession was false, the DA’s Office had his conviction vacated and his indictment dismissed. Thibodeaux was released from prison and now lives in Minnesota.
But when Thibodeaux petitioned the state for restitution, the Attorney General’s Office challenged the claim, saying prosecutors never acknowledged Thibodeaux was “factually innocent.”
Herb Larson, Thibodeaux’s attorney, said Tuesday that Caldwell’s office has developed a pattern of turning the restitution process into a protracted legal process full of technicalities and obstacles that violate the spirit of the compensation fund — a process he said is being played out again with his client.
“What the Attorney General’s Office is doing is everything it can within its power to undermine the statute for compensation,” he said. “It is objecting at every possible turn; it is opposing every petition that is filed; and it has turned what was supposed to be an administrative process into a legalistic, hyper-technical nightmare.”
Monday’s filing objects not only to the attorney general’s contention that Thibodeaux must meet a burden of proof, but also his claim that rules of evidence and discovery should apply.
A separate but related filing challenges the attorney general’s call to exclude the findings of the joint investigation that were used to vacate Thibodeaux’s conviction.
“The attorney general misconstrues the proceeding as a criminal trial turned on its head, in which the plaintiff, Damon Thibodeaux, bears the burden that the prosecution does in a criminal case: to prove his innocence,” Larson wrote.
Caldwell’s office defended its stance Tuesday, largely reiterating the case it made initially, citing the state statute that requires Thibodeaux “to have proven … he is factually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.”
But Larson said the law was written the way it is to rule out people whose convictions were overturned on a technicality, not to force petitioners like Thibodeaux to prove their innocence.
He said the involvement of Connick’s office in vacating the conviction and the nature of the evidence introduced during the joint investigation make it clear that Thibodeaux’s case meets that standard.
The Attorney General’s Office disagrees.
“There are still many questions surrounding the actions and whereabouts of Thibodeaux on the date and time of Crystal Champagne’s murder,” Kurt Wall, director of the attorney general’s Criminal Division, said in a written statement. “This is not a case of DNA exoneration. We feel it is both prudent and judicious to allow a judge to hear all of the evidence and then make a determination whether there is clear and convincing evidence of factual innocence before any taxpayer money is awarded to this petitioner.”
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office has not commented on the brewing legal battle, saying it is the attorney general’s case.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.