Before that day was over, Thibodeaux had recanted his confession, telling his court-appointed lawyer that he told police what they wanted to hear in response to threats of death by lethal injection and his grief over the death of his cousin. Nonetheless, Thibodeaux was later convicted of both crimes and sentenced to die.
Now, after more than 15 years spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement on death row at Louisiana’s Angola prison farm, Thibodeaux is free.
Judge Patrick McCabe — who presided over the original trial in 1997 — issued a sealed order on Thursday vacating the conviction. With Thibodeaux’s release Friday, he became the 300th wrongly convicted person and 18th death-row inmate exonerated in the United States substantially on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the New York-based Innocence Project, which provides legal counsel to prisoners it believes can be exonerated through DNA testing.
Friday’s release was authorized by Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. after an extraordinary five-year joint reinvestigation with defense lawyers concluded that the murder confession was clearly false. Nearly every ostensible fact in the statement didn’t match the crime scene or other evidence. The inquiry found that the sexual assault to which Thibodeaux also confessed — making him eligible under Louisiana law for the death penalty — never occurred.
The Thibodeaux case marks a dramatic mathematical milestone in the use of DNA in law enforcement, but it also signals the opening of a new, more complex phase in the use of such material in attempts to right the course of justice.
When DNA testing was first introduced in the late 1980s, the revolutionary new techniques shattered a widely held view in law enforcement and the public that American courts rarely convicted the innocent. Since then, high-profile exonerations and the increasingly common reliance on such testing have led many to believe that DNA can resolve doubts about almost any questionable conviction.
It’s now clear, however, that there is no DNA evidence in the vast majority of cases. In the first 15 years of DNA testing, almost all exonerations fit a basic pattern in which the defendant was accused of rape, or both rape and murder — because sexual assaults are the crimes in which DNA is most likely to be recovered. Between 1989 and the end of 2007, a total of 214 people were cleared using DNA evidence. In all but 14 cases — more than 93 percent — the alleged crime involved a sexual assault of some kind, according to a review by The Washington Post.
In hindsight, those straightforward, obvious miscarriages of justice were the low-hanging fruit of DNA exonerations. Now their numbers are declining. In their place are convictions such as Thibodeaux’s, in which serious doubts have been raised but little clear DNA or other scientific forensic evidence exists to conclusively prove guilt or innocence. In Thibodeaux’s case, the absence of any incriminating DNA evidence became as powerful an argument for his innocence as any other element of the case.