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Man who spent 15 years on death row before exoneration dies of Covid

Damon Thibodeaux, 47, died in Jacksonville, Florida, less than 10 years after his release from prison.
Damon Thibodeaux, a death row exoneree from Louisiana released from death row in 2012 after 15 years of prison, speaks to students on Sept. 19, 2014.
Damon Thibodeaux, a death row exoneree from Louisiana released from death row in 2012 after 15 years of prison, speaks to students on Sept. 19, 2014.William Edwards / AFP via Getty Images file

A man who spent 15 years on death row before he was exonerated in 2012 has died of Covid-19, according to The Innocence Project and an online obituary.

"The world lost the infectious smile and joy of Damon Thibodeaux," said the obituary published by the The Times-Picayune this month. He died in Jacksonville, Florida, on Aug. 31, "less than 10 years after his release," the obit said. He was 47.

In a tweet, The Innocence Project said Thibodeaux was "an incredibly kind and gentle person."

Thibodeaux was 22 and working as a deckhand in Louisiana in 1996 when his step-cousin Crystal Champagne was strangled to death, according to The Innocence Project. Her body was discovered with a red extension cord wrapped around her neck and evidence of a possible sexual assault.

Thibodeaux was considered a suspect because of his familial relationship to Champagne, but he denied involvement in her death and agreed to a polygraph, which he was told he had failed.

He ended up confessing to "consensual and nonconsensual sex with the victim and then to beating and murdering her" during a nine-hour interrogation, of which less than an hour was recorded, The Innocence Project said.

"I didn't know that I had done it, but I done it," he said in the confession, according to his obituary.

Even though some of the details in Thibodeaux's confession were inconsistent with evidence, he was convicted and sentenced to death row in Louisiana.

In 2007, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office started reinvestigating the case with The Innocence Project. The investigation found that DNA from the scene matched male DNA that was not Thibodeaux’s.

Witnesses who said they saw Thibodeaux at the crime scene told investigators that they had seen his photo in the news before identifying him and that they had in fact thought they spotted him at the scene the day after Champagne's body was found, when Thibodeaux was already in custody.

Meanwhile, "the prosecution’s own expert had concluded prior to the original trial that Thibodeaux falsely confessed based on fear of the death penalty, but this information was never shared with the defense," according to The Innocence Project.

Thibodeaux’s conviction and death sentence were eventually overturned in 2012, after he had spent 15 years on death row and 16 years behind bars. He was the 300th person exonerated through DNA evidence.

After his release, Thibodeaux moved to Minnesota, earned his high school diploma, became a long-haul trucker and started giving talks around the country about wrongful conviction reform.

His story was featured in the 2017 documentary "The Penalty."

After his release, Thibodeaux "suffered nightmares that returned him to the harrowing experience of his solitary confinement in a small single cell and the crushing despair, loneliness, and hopelessness," according to his obituary, but "Damon was a spiritual person whose belief in God helped him survive his ordeal."

"Despite what had happened to him, Damon continued to look forward, re-forging relationships with his family, and gathering about him many friends, who considered him family," it said.

In a 2013 interview with NBC affiliate KARE of Minneapolis, Thibodeaux said, "The best part of my day, no matter how good the rest of my day is, is when I wake up every morning and I don't see those bars."

"You can't go through something like this and not be angry," he conceded. "It's what you do with it that defines you."

Thibodeaux is survived by his mother, Cynthia Thibodeaux; two sisters, Vickie Chauvin and Alice Hensen; a brother, David Thibodeaux; a son, Joshua Thibodeaux; and grandchildren.

Thibodeaux was never compensated for his wrongful conviction. A claim for compensation was pending at the time of his death.