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Case Review

After a nine-hour interrogation in 1996, Damon Thibodeaux confessed to raping and strangling his 14-year-old step cousin, Crystal Champagne. His confession, which was later recanted, did not match the facts of the crime and there was no physical evidence to link him to the murder. Despite this, the jury found Thibodeaux guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to death in 1997. He subsequently spent 15 years on death row before his conviction and death sentence were finally overturned in 2012 and all charges against him dismissed. Thibodeaux's exoneration was substantially due to DNA evidence. He was the 300th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States: of those 300 people, 18 had been sentenced to death.

The Circumstances Leading Up To Arrest
Thibodeaux spent the evening of 19 July 1996 at the Champagne family home in New Orleans, Louisiana . Crystal Champagne was Thibodeaux's 14 year old step-cousin. At around 5:15 p.m., she left the flat alone to go to the local supermarket. After several hours, Champagne had not returned. Her mother raised the alarm with the local authorities and the family, including Thibodeaux started a search party. The search continued throughout the night and the following day. During the following afternoon, a friend of the Champagne family, Stacey Melancon, and her boyfriend circulated missing flyers at several shops and restaurants. At one of these restaurants, two women said that they had seen a girl fitting Champagne's description walking on the levee on the previous night. Stacey and her boyfriend went to the levee in search of Champagne and found her body lying on a concrete slab underneath a bridge. A piece of red wire was wrapped around her neck. Her shirt and bra were pulled above her breasts, with her shorts around her ankles. Her body had become infested with maggots and ants.

The Interview
Before Champagne's body was found, the police had begun to interview anyone who had been with her prior to her disappearance. During the course of their interview with Thibodeaux, the police were informed that Champagne's body had been discovered and that she had been strangled to death. Their missing person investigation immediately became a homicide investigation. Thibodeaux cooperated during the interview: He waived his rights and gave a statement denying any knowledge of, or involvement in, Champagne's disappearance or death. After giving this statement, he agreed to take a polygraph test. The detectives informed him that he had failed this test, at which point he fainted. During his interview, the detectives repeatedly told Thibodeaux that he was lying, putting their faces close up to his. When he gave them the names of the people he had been with over the previous 24 hours as alibis, the officers said they had talked to those individuals and they had denied it. The

detectives also warned Thibodeaux that if he was found guilty, he could be put to death. They then described the lethal injection process to him in great detail. The police did not record Thibodeaux's interview.

The Confession
At 4:00 a.m., after eight and a half hours of questioning, with no sleep or food, Thibodeaux confessed to raping and strangling Champagne. In his confession, he repeated details of the crime that the detectives had given to him during his lengthy interview. Specifically, Thibodeaux confessed to: Picking Champagne up in his car at the supermarket; Driving her to the levee and beginning to have sex with her; Champagne protesting that he was being too rough and beginning to struggle; Hitting her in the face and strangling her; Ejaculating both inside and outside of her during this strangulation; Retrieving a speaker wire from the trunk of his car, putting it around her throat and tying it; and Leaving Champagne's dead body at the levee before returning home to join in the search for her. After Thibodeaux's confession, the police charged him with first degree murder under Louisiana Statute (La.Rev Stat. 14:30(A)(1): the killing of a human being when the offender has specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm and is engaged in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of aggravated rape) which carries a maximum sentence of death. However, the credibility of Thibodeaux's confession began to fall apart within hours: He recanted his confession as soon as he was allowed to rest and eat. The emerging details of the crime scene were inconsistent with his confession. In particular, the cord that was wrapped around Champagne's neck was actually a red electrical conductor wire that had been hanging on a nearby tree and not the speaker wire that Thibodeaux had confessed to retrieving from his car trunk. Forensics also revealed that Champagne had been struck round the face with a blunt object - such as a rock or a bat - rather than by a fist, as Thibodeaux had confessed. Despite detailed investigations, the forensics team also found no DNA evidence to connect Thibodeaux to the crime scene and found no injuries to Champagne's body that were consistent with rape or attempted rape. Within three hours of Thibodauxs confession, Champagne's mother told investigators that he had been with her in the Champagnes' flat when she called the police to report her daughter's disappearance: thereby undermining the possibility of him getting to and from the crime scene in time to have committed the murder. Despite these issues, the prosecution of Thibodeaux was pursued.

Grand Jury Indictment

Thibodeaux was indicted by a Jefferson Parish grand jury on 25 July 1996 for committing first degree murder.


Voir Dire (The Jury Selection Process)

The jury is selected before the trial takes place. During this process, the parties' lawyers examine a pool of potential jurors to determine their suitability to determine the outcome of the trial. They are questioned about their background, qualifications, experiences and opinions. Either side can challenge the selection of a particular juror if their answers show that they may be prejudiced. In Thibodeaux's case, the trial judge: Upheld the prosecution's challenges to nine prospective jurors, who had all indicated that they would have personal difficulties with imposing a death sentence on a guilty defendant; and Refused to allow the defence to question potential jurors about their willingness to accept a 'false confession' theory. These issues were argued in Thibodeaux's appeal.

Thibodeaux's trial began on 29 September 1997 and lasted three days. Judge Patrick McCabe presided over the trial.

Thibodeaux's Representation
Thibodeaux could not afford his own lawyer and so was assigned a public defence attorney. His attorney was a former detective and Thibodeaux's trial was his first murder case. At the time of the trial (and unknown to Thibodeaux) his attorney was applying for a transfer to the same District Attorney's office that was prosecuting Thibodeaux.

The Prosecution
Aggravating Factor: Aggravated Rape In order to establish first-degree murder, the prosecution are required to produce evidence of some aggravating factor. To find Thibodeaux guilty of this offence, he was charged on the basis of aggravated rape. The prosecution, therefore, needed to prove that Thibodeaux had committed or attempted to commit rape in the course of killing Champagne. To establish this, the prosecution relied heavily on Thibodeaux's confession. But for the position of Champagnes clothing on her body, there was no collaborative evidence to support this. The prosecutions case theory explained the lack of scientific evidence of sexual intercourse or rape being due to "semen-destroying maggots". Eye-Witnesses Two women who had been walking on the levee on the night of Champagne's murder testified as eye-witnesses against Thibodeaux, describing him as having been pacing and acting nervous. They identified him in a photographic line-up and again at trial One of these women, Deborah Schwab, admitted that she had seen some of the media coverage about the murder prior to viewing the photographic line-up. However, the other woman, Melissa Frame, testified that she had not seen any media coverage and that on the evening of the murder she was only 8-10 feet away from Thibodeaux. Expert Evidence Dr Lamar Leek, professor of entomology (the study of insects) at Louisiana State University testified as an expert in the field of forensic entomology, in order to provide evidence as to the time of Champagne's death. He examined the insect samples taken

from her body and determined that the maggots would have been between 24-28 hours old when Champagne's body was discovered.

The Defence
Thibodeaux's defence argued that detectives had coerced him into making his confession and had suggested facts to him during their interrogation. The defence produced psychological and sociological experts to demonstrate that Thibodeaux's early years had been tainted with abuse and neglect. They described him as a passive and dependent person who is very easily led. They argued that this had resulted in Thibodeaux being easily manipulated by the police and coerced into confessing to a crime that he had not committed. Thibodeaux's mother and sister also testified to provide him with an alibi for the time of Champagne's murder. Thibodeaux did not testify.

The Verdict
On 3 October 1997 the jury retired to consider their verdict. They deliberated for 45 minutes before delivering a unanimous verdict: Thibodeaux was guilty of first degree murder. Therefore, despite the absence of any physical evidence to show that Champagne had been raped, in order to reach their verdict, the jury must have decided that Thibodeaux had committed aggravated rape.

Sentencing Hearing
The day after the jury delivered the guilty verdict, the sentence hearing took place. During sentence hearings, the same jury is required to determine the appropriate sentence: life (without the possibility of parole) or death. In doing so, they are required to balance any mitigating and aggravating factors of the offence and offender. The prosecution and defence have the opportunity to present evidence to argue these. In Thibodeaux's case the defence presented six witnesses to persuade the jury not to return a death sentence. These witnesses included a forensic social worker and a clinical forensic psychologist, who catalogued Thibodeaux's years of physical and sexual abuse. The defence also put forward an expert in executive clemency and corrections, to try to explain how infrequently the Louisiana governors exercise their power to grant clemency to capital convicts. Notwithstanding the defence's representations, the jury returned a sentence of death for Thibodeaux.

Post-Trial Motions
Thibodeaux's defence counsel filed motions before the trial judge for a new trial and a postverdict judgment of acquittal. These were denied.

On 8 September 1999, Thibodeaux appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court against his conviction and death sentence. He alleged that his trial had contained 55 errors that required his conviction and sentence to be overturned. His appeal failed on all grounds and the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction for first-degree murder and his death sentence.


Thibodeaux's grounds of appeal included: 1. His confession was false, coerced and should not have been admitted Thibodeaux argued that the detectives who conducted his interview had supplied him with the details of the crime and that, by the power of suggestion, he had "parroted" those points in his coerced confession. His confession was, therefore, false, unreliable and involuntary, and could not be used to support his conviction and sentence. As a matter of Louisiana law, before a confession can be admitted into evidence, the state has the burden of showing that it was made freely and voluntarily and not under the influence of fear, duress, intimidation, menace, threats, inducements or promises. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Thibodeaux's appeal, as they held that the admissibility of his confession was a question for the trial judge. It was not open to the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn the trial judge's conclusions on the admissibility of Thibodeaux's confession unless the judge's conclusions were not supported by the evidence. The Louisiana Supreme Court decided that this was not the case and considered that there was adequate evidence to support the trial judge's conclusions. 2. Thibodeaux should have been permitted to question potential jurors' ability to accept a false confession theory Thibodeaux argued that the trial court improperly curtailed his right to a free and full voir dire by denying him the right to question potential jurors about their willingness to accept a 'false confession' theory. His appeal also failed on this ground. The Louisiana Supreme Court noted that the scope of voir dire examination lies within the trial court's discretion and the appeal court will only disturb its rulings if there was a clear abuse of that discretion. In this case, there was no such abuse: the Louisiana Supreme Court decided that the trial judge had acted correctly in refusing to allow Thibodeaux's attorney to question the jurors about whether they believed in the 'power of suggestion', as this would have required the potential jurors to make a pre-judgment or would have pried into their opinions about issues to be resolved in the case. 3. Failure to instruct the jury on the statutory aggravator of aggravated rape Thibodeaux argued that the trial judge had failed to instruct the jury on the required elements of aggravated rape before they retired to determine his sentence. He submitted that the judge had failed to define the elements of " perpetration or attempted perpetration of aggravated rape", which had left the jury with unfettered discretion to impose its death sentence. The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected this appeal. They indicated that the judge had 'fully and exhaustively' defined the elements of aggravated rape and attempt to the same jurors the day before the penalty hearing. Further, Thibodeaux's defence attorney had not lodged any complaint at the time of the trial, and the judge's instructions to the jury mirrored those contained in the Louisiana Judges' Criminal Bench Book (a handbook used by judges for giving instructions). 4. The evidence was insufficient to convict Thibodeaux of first degree murder Thibodeaux argued that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of first degree murder because the prosecution had offered insufficient evidence of the aggravated rape to support the verdict. The prosecution's only evidence of the aggravated rape had been his false confession and there was no physical, forensic or trace evidence to suggest that any rape or attempted rape had taken place.


This appeal was also rejected. For this ground of appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court was bound to consider the evidence in the most positive light for the state. Using that test, even if they accepted Thibodeaux's claim that there was no physical evidence to support a finding of rape or attempted rape, the court was entitled to consider Thibodeaux's confession in which he stated that he had killed Champagne while forcing her to have sexual intercourse with him. In a related submission, Thibodeaux argued that his conviction violated the rule of "corpus delicti", whereby an accused cannot be convicted on his own uncorroborated confession without proof that a crime has been committed by someone. Thibodeaux argued that the absence of any forensic evidence shows that the prosecution failed to prove that an aggravated rape had taken place. The Louisiana Supreme Court examined the corpus delicti rule but rejected Thibodeaux's argument. They said that for murder cases, the rule only requires proof that the victim died and that the death was caused by a criminal act: there is no requirement for independent evidence to corroborate every element of the crime that the accused has admitted in his confession. 5. The state impermissibly produced prejudicial, inaccurate and irrelevant information In order to ensure that juries do not impose the death penalty 'wantonly or freakishly' or for discriminatory reasons, Louisiana law does not allow arbitrary factors that are entirely irrelevant, or marginally relevant, to the jury's sentencing function to be introduced to the jury. Before the jury retired to consider its penalty decision, Thibodeaux's defence presented an expert in executive clemency to explain the infrequency with which Louisiana governors have exercised their clemency power for capital convicts. During the state's cross-examination of the defence's expert, they sought to introduce information about specific cases of murderers whose sentences had indeed been commuted and about the relatively relaxed life at Louisiana's Angola prison. Thibodeaux argued that the trial court had wrongly allowed the state to ask these questions and that the answers had resulted in prejudicial, inaccurate and irrelevant information being introduced to the jurors. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed that the expert's references to Angola prison life had been made in error and constituted an arbitrary factor that should not have been mentioned. However, it decided that these references were harmless and did not result in an error of such magnitude as to undermine the confidence in the jury's death sentence. The fact that Thibodeaux's defence attorneys did not object to the state's questions at the sentencing hearing was considered to be relevant. Therefore, Thibodeaux's appeal also failed on this ground. 6. Thibodeaux was not adequately informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him This ground of appeal was based on the fact that Thibodeaux had not been given access to the grand jury transcript. However, his argument was firmly rejected and the Louisiana Supreme Court held that Thibodeaux had been given sufficient notice of the charges brought against him. They also noted that the time for testing the sufficiency of a grand jury's indictment is before trial: a post-verdict attack on the sufficiency of an indictment should be rejected unless the indictment failed to give fair notice of the offence charged or failed to set out an identifiable offence. 7. Witnesses misidentified Thibodeaux Thibodeaux argued that the identifications of the two eye-witnesses (Melissa Frame and Deborah Schwab) should have been suppressed as they had been tainted by earlier suggestive identification procedures.

This argument was rejected. The Louisiana Supreme Court considered that, although Schwab's identification of Thibodeaux was tentative and Frame had seen some media coverage of the murder before viewing the photo line-up, they had not received any suggestion that influenced their identification of Thibodeaux. They found that both would have had ample opportunity to observe him in the early-evening light on the night of the crime. 8. A number of potential jurors should not have been rejected on the grounds that they could not consider the death penalty The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Thibodeaux's argument that the trial court should not have allowed the state to reject nine potential jurors because they had indicated difficulty in considering the death penalty. The Louisiana Supreme Court decided that this appeal had no merit, as each of the prospective jurors had expressed views about the death penalty that would prevent or substantially impair them from making impartial decisions as jurors. 9. Capital sentence review Finally, the Louisiana Supreme Court reviews all death sentences imposed by state courts in order to determine if they were constitutionally excessive. In making this determination, the Louisiana Supreme Court considers: whether the jury imposed the death sentence under the influence of passion, prejudice or other arbitrary factors; whether the evidence supports the jury's findings with respect to a statutory aggravated circumstance (here, the aggravated rape); and whether the sentence was disproportionate, considering the offence and the offender. If the jury's recommendation of death is inconsistent with sentences imposed in similar cases in the same jurisdiction, an inference of arbitrariness arises. In Thibodeaux's case, the Louisiana Supreme Court studied his mitigating factors, including his sexual and physical abuse as a child. However, they weighed this against the aggravating factor of aggravated rape (and his confession). In light of other cases in which the death sentence had been imposed, they found that the death penalty was not disproportionate and, accordingly, upheld it.

Re-Investigation And Exoneration

In 2000, three years after his conviction, Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron began acting on a pro bono basis for Thibodeaux. They started a thorough investigation into his conviction and joined forces with the Innocence Project. In 2007, the legal team managed to convince the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office that a re-investigation was merited. Amongst other things, the team: Instructed a forensic psychologist to examine all of the circumstances surrounding Thibodeaux's confession to try to explain why he confessed to a rape and murder he did not commit - the resulting report described a combination of psychological vulnerability, exhaustion and fear of the death penalty; Discovered that the prosecution's own expert at the trial had concluded that Thibodeaux had falsely confessed based on fear of the death penalty and that this information had never been shared with the defence; Sought expert forensic advice, including an expert on maggots, who showed that the prosecution's hypothesis of "semen-eating maggots" was false; Discovered that male DNA was contained on the cord found near Champagne's body, which was not Thibodeaux's;

Concluded that DNA testing on Champagne's clothing gave rise to no evidence of Thibodeaux's tissue, blood or fluids; Interviewed witnesses to establish alibis for Thibodeaux for all but five minutes of the period between Champagne's disappearance and her death; and Discredited the eyewitness testimony that placed Thibodeaux near the crime scene, as they discovered that the sighting took place the day after Champagne's body was found, when Thibodeaux was already in custody. In 2012, Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick agreed that a miscarriage of justice had taken place and that Thibodeaux's conviction should be overturned. In September 2012, he joined in a motion to vacate Thibodaux's conviction and death sentence and to dismiss all charges against him. On 27 September 2012, Judge Patrick McCabe, the same judge who presided over Thibodaux's trial in 1997, ordered Thibodeaux's immediate release. The following afternoon, Thibodeaux walked out of Angola prison a free man. Following his release, Thibodeaux moved to Minneapolis and began working for an office equipment company. He has yet to receive any compensation for his 16-year imprisonment. In theory, he is entitled to compensation of up to $330,000 from the state of Louisiana, but, in practice, obtaining such compensation is likely to take several years and will ultimately depend upon the Louisiana legislature agreeing to allocate the money.

Case Report - Supreme Court Of Louisiana, 98-KA-1673 - State Of Louisiana V. Damon Thibodeaux:

Case Review produced by Baker & McKenzie.



19 July 1996 Crystal Champagne leaves home to walk to a nearby supermarket. She goes missing that evening. Champagne's body is discovered. At the time the body is discovered, Thibodeaux is being interviewed by the police. The police are informed of the discovery during the interview (around 8:00 p.m.). The interview continues and at 4:21 a.m. on 21 July Thibodeaux confesses to murdering and raping Champagne. Thibodeaux is indicted for first degree murder of Champagne. He enters a plea of not guilty. Application for supervisory and/or remedial writs is denied. Trial commences. Thibodeaux is convicted of first degree murder and the jury unanimously returns a death sentence based on finding one aggravating circumstance - aggravated rape. Thibodeaux appeals his conviction and sentence on the grounds that no physical, forensic or trace evidence supported a finding of rape or attempted rape. His appeal is denied. Application for rehearing denied. Petition for writ of certiorari (i.e. discretionary review) to the Supreme Court of Louisiana denied. Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron begin acting pro bono for Thibodeaux and start investigating his conviction. The Jefferson Parish District Attorneys Office and the Innocence Project join Fredrikson & Byron and open a joint reinvestigation of Thibodeauxs case. Thibodeaux exonerated and released.

20 July 1996

25 July 1996

5 September 1997 29 September 1997 3 October 1997

8 September 1999

19 November 1999 15 May 2000



27/28 September 2012

Chronology produced by Baker & McKenzie.

Case Summary

On 19 July 1996, 14-year-old Crystal Champagne went missing. Damon Thibodeaux, aged 21 at the time and a half-cousin of the victim, was among the suspects interviewed by detectives from the Jefferson Parish Sheriffs Department . During the course of his interview, Champagne's body was discovered. She had been strangled. Following extensive interrogation, Thibodeaux confessed to raping and strangling Champagne. However, there were significant discrepancies between the facts that he stated in his confession and the details that emerged following investigation of the crime scene. Nevertheless, Thibodeaux was charged with aggravated rape and first degree murder: for which the maximum sentence in Louisiana is death. Thibodeaux subsequently recanted his confession but this was ignored by law enforcement officials and prosecutors. At trial, prosecutors built their case around Thibodeaux's confession and used eyewitness testimony to secure a conviction. Thibodeaux's publicly-appointed attorney was a former detective and this was his first murder trial. The jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced Thibodeaux to death. His defence filed motions for a new trial and for a post-verdict judgment of acquittal, but the trial court denied these motions. Thibodeaux was incarcerated on death row in Louisiana State Penitentiary. Thibodeaux's attorneys appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court on various grounds, including: (i) His confession was unreliable and coerced. They argued that it should have been inadmissible because the whole interview was not recorded (merely his confession) and because Thibodeaux was psychologically fragile and highly suggestible following his long and intensive interrogation. (ii) The details of his confession differed from the circumstances of Champagne's death derived from the crime scene. (iii) There was no physical, forensic or trace evidence that supported a finding of rape or attempted rape. However, Thibodeaux's appeal was denied. The State Supreme Court found that the trial judge had not erred in his instructions to the jury or in his decision to admit the confession evidence against Thibodeaux. In 2007, Thibodeaux's new legal team, the Innocence Project and the Jefferson Parish District Attorneys Office initiated a joint reinvestigation into Thibodeaux's case. New DNA and forensic analysis had concluded that there was no evidence connecting Thibodeaux to the Champagne crime scene. Further, the eyewitness testimony given at trial was proven to be erroneous and forensic psychologists were brought in to demonstrate that Thibodeaux made his false confession as a result of exhaustion, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty. This evidence was presented to the Jefferson Parish District Attorney, who was persuaded that a miscarriage of justice had taken place. After 15 years on death row, Thibodeaux was finally exonerated on 27 September 2012 and was released from prison the next day. Thibodeaux now lives in Minneapolis. He has not yet received any compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Case Review produced by Baker & McKenzie.