Free After 15 Years on Death Row
NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A man with an I.Q. of 79 spent 15 years on death row after New Orleans sheriff's officers spent nine hours coercing him into confessing to a rape and murder he didn't commit, the freed man claims in court.
Damon Thibodeaux sued Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and six of his high-ranking officers, in Federal Court.
Thibodeaux seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the 16 years he spent in prison - 15 of them on death row. He claims the defendant officers could not have actually believed he committed the rape and murder they bullied him into confessing.
Defendants include four sheriff's lieutenants, a major and a sergeant.
Thibodeaux was 22 on the July evening in 1996 when his 14-year-old cousin, Crystal Champagne, left her family's apartment in Westwego, a suburb of New Orleans. Champagne said she was going to the Winn Dixie grocery store across the way.
Thibodeaux, Crystal's mother and father were at the apartment when she left.
After an hour passed and Crystal hadn't returned, Thibodeaux, Crystal's parents and some friends scoured the apartment complex and grocery store, looking for her. After two hours, Crystal's mother called 911 and reported her missing.
Friends and family, including Thibodeaux, continued to look for Crystal throughout the night and into the next day.
The next day at around 7:30 p.m., a former neighbor of Crystal's family, who was a convicted child molester, called 911 and reported he had found Crystal's body lying in a concealed area along the Mississippi River, Thibodeaux says in the lawsuit.
Crystal's death "was clearly a murder," according to the complaint. She had been beaten on the head and the face, her body was bloody, her clothes had been pulled down below her waist and above her breasts, and red electrical cord had been tied around her neck.
"Within minutes" of the child molester's report, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office picked up Thibodeaux at his mother's house.
"There was no probable cause to interrogate Damon Thibodeaux at that time," the complaint states.
Nevertheless, defendants Sgt. Dennis Thornton and Maj. Walter Gorman took Thibodeaux to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff Office Criminal Investigation Bureau in Harvey, La. and interrogated him for nine hours, using techniques that "were unconstitutional, illegal, coercive, unethical, unprofessional, and unreliable," according to the complaint.
These methods included isolating Thibodeaux for extended periods, refusing to let him contact an attorney or anyone else, letting him believe he was not free to go, repeatedly and abusively accusing him of lying, and treating all of his denials of guilt as lies. The officers also lied to him about statements made by other witnesses, including Crystal's parents, Thibodeaux claims.
Thibodeaux claims the officers offered him a "black out" scenario, telling him "it was common for people to 'black out' and not remember killing someone, and that such as scenario was possible in this case."
The officers told him he "would be killed by lethal injection, following a 'media-circus trial,' if he did not confess to the rape and murder of Crystal Champagne," Thibodeaux said in the complaint.
It adds: "Thibodeaux has a full-scale IQ of 79 and, due to a history of severe, traumatic childhood abuse, was and is profoundly anxious, conflict-avoidant, and pliable when persons in positions of authority confront and/or accuse him. When he began purportedly confessing at 4:21 a.m. on Sunday, July 21, 1996, he was also physically exhausted, having been without any meaningful rest for some 35 hours because he had been searching for Crystal Champagne throughout the previous night and day."
The defendants gave Thibodeaux a polygraph test, and although he did not "fail" it, they told him he did, and that this "proved he was lying" when he denied murdering Crystal Champagne, the complaint states.
"At around 4:41 a.m., following over nine hours of intensive and coercive interrogation by the defendants, Damon Thibodeaux gave a 'confession' to raping and murdering Crystal Champagne. This 'confession,' which did nothing more than incorporate 'facts' fed to Damon Thibodeaux by the defendants, was and is demonstrably false," the lawsuit states.
Thibodeaux was immediately arrested for the murder.
The coroner's autopsy disproved Thibodeaux's "confession" "in at least five significant regards," according to the complaint.
Four days after Thibodeaux's arrest, he was indicted for capital murder by a grand jury.
In 2009, several well-known forensic scientists, including Dr. Edward T. Blake, performed DNA testing on clothing worn by Crystal Champagne and Thibodeaux at the time of her death.
"In June and September 2010, Dr. Blake issued comprehensive reports confirming what Dr. Lee and every other forensic expert, the DNA testing laboratory, and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office Crime Lab had previously found - that no evidence connected Damon Thibodeaux to Crystal Champagne's body, her clothing, or the crime scene, although had he actually been the perpetrator, that evidence would have existed in abundance," the lawsuit states.
Blake's findings, along with every other scientist that examined the evidence, disproved Thibodeaux's false confession to raping and killing Crystal Champagne, the complaint states.
Their work proved that "Crystal Champagne had not been raped and, indeed, had not engaged in any sexual intercourse on the day of her death," according to the complaint.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's own psychiatric expert conducted extensive interviews with Thibodeaux and numerous people familiar with his history, and based on those interviews, the expert also concluded Thibodeaux's confession had been false, the complaint states.
Thibodeaux was released from Death Row on Sept. 28, 2012.
He seeks compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations.
He is represented by Herbert V. Larson Jr. of New Orleans.
Defendants include Lt. Steve Buras, Sgt. Dennis Thornton, Lt. Stacy Phillips, Maj. Walter Gorman, Lt. Maggie Snow, and Lt. Hilda Montecino.
A parish is Louisiana's version of a county.