Damon Thibodeaux has a lot to be angry about. In 1997, when he was 22 years old, he was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent the next 15 years on death row, terrified of dying for a crime he did not commit. But he’s trying not to dwell on that. At 38 years old, he’s focusing on the years he has in front of him.
“I was 22. I am 38 now,” Thibodeaux said in an interview with WUNC at the 2013 Innocence Network Conference. “It’s a big chunk that’s missing. But I’m thankful I can live the rest of it.”
Thibodeaux was charged with murdering and raping his 14-year-old half-cousin Crystal on July 21, 1996, after a nine-hour interrogation in which he initially denied, then confessed to the crime. A jury later convicted him of the charges, and the judge gave him the death penalty. He was sent to Angola prison in Louisaina, to death row.
But significant details of Thibodeaux’s confession didn’t match the evidence of Crystal’s death. For example, he confessed to strangling her with a gray speaker wire, but the strangling instrument used in the crime was a red electrical cord. He admitted to hitting her face with his hand, but a medical examination later concluded that she had actually been hit with a blunt object. Thibodeaux confessed to rape, but a medical examiner found no evidence of sexual assault. Later, when Thibodeaux was in prison, DNA testing found that his DNA did not match the male DNA found on the electrical cord used to strangle Crystal.
During his interrogation, Thibodeaux had been fed non-public information by police officers, and his confession was, at best, an incorrect guess at how the crime had happened. He was tired, hungry, and scared of the death threats that were used to coerce him. When he confessed, it was 4 a.m. After he was allowed to rest and eat, he recanted his confession.
Thibodeaux was exonerated in 2012 with the help of the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming public policies that lead to such convictions. With their help, his case was overturned after a reinvestigation that found Thibodeaux’s confession false on every major detail, and that the reasons for his confession were exhaustion, physical vulnerability, and fear of the death penalty.
Now that Thibodeaux is in control of his own life again, he’s dealing with the repercussions of having spent 15 years of his life behind bars. He says that he carries the experience with him everywhere.
“Exonerees have a missing chunk out of their life,” Thibodeaux said. “A lot of times, I’ll catch myself thinking, ‘Well, what if this person standing next to me in an elevator knew my story. What would they do in a situation like mine? Could they go through it and not be angry?’”
But he has realized that in order to move on with his life, he can’t focus on the past. He’s starting over in Minnesota, where a rehabilitation program is helping him move forward. He has an apartment and a part-time job now. In January, he earned his GED. He relishes the small things, like having his own bathroom, cooking his own meals and the simple fact that he is not in a prison cell.
“No matter what happens the rest of the day,” Thibodeaux says, “the best part is: I wake up and there’s no bars.”