Applied against the approximately 140,000 prisoners on death row or serving life sentences in the United States, the findings suggest that many thousands of innocent individuals could be in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
But the odds that many of those convicts will ever be able to prove their innocence through the existing systems of appeals are remote, given the lack of DNA evidence in the majority of cases.
That was largely true for Thibodeaux. In the hours after Champagne disappeared on July 19, 1996, there was no evidence to suspect Thibodeaux. The 14-year-old lived with her mother and other family members in an apartment complex on the frayed blue-collar edges of New Orleans. Her uncle had once been married to Damon Thibodeaux’s mother, making them what the families called “step-cousins.”
In the initial investigation of Thibodeaux, police found no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Since the victim had in fact not been sexually assaulted, there was also none of the DNA typically associated with a rape.
The only strong evidence against Thibodeaux was his confession. He never asked for legal representation. Early in the questioning, a detective asked at least a dozen times whether he had been involved in the killing, according to partial transcripts. “No sir,” Thibodeaux said firmly each time. After denying any involvement in the crime for more than six hours, an almost catatonic Thibodeaux confessed to police just before dawn. Almost every factual assertion he made was plainly incorrect.
“At that point I was tired,” Thibodeaux said, in an interview minutes after his release Friday. “I was hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I was willing to tell them anything they wanted me to tell them if it would get me out of that interrogation room.” He said investigators fed him details of the crime scene. His salvation was that many of those details were incorrect.
The lack of conclusive DNA evidence in Thibodeaux’s case was overcome only through the unusual joint investigation between the district attorney and defense lawyers — during which Thibodeaux, now 38, put his formal court appeals on hold.
The inquiry found glaring contradictions between the confession and physical evidence. New DNA testing conducted on clothing worn by Thibodeaux on the night of the killing and virtually every other piece of evidence established no links to the crime. A DNA profile was obtained from a tiny sample of blood on a piece of wire used to strangle the victim. It didn’t match Thibodeaux. The cost of the reinvestigation was more than $500,000, shared by the defense and prosecution, according to lawyers involved in the case.
Thibodeaux, who plans to move to Minnesota to restart his life, didn’t sound bitter after his release Friday, but rather relieved. “Right now, I’m just adjusting to being not behind bars,” he said, “and not being told where to go, what time to go. Getting used to not having chains on. That’s a novelty for me.”