The Innocence Project in a tweet last week memorialized Thibodeaux as “an incredibly kind and gentle person” and noted that he was still fighting for compensation for his years of wrongful imprisonment when he died.
“It’s so unfair,” retired Minneapolis attorney Steve Kaplan told the Star Tribune. “I’m struggling to make peace with it, but you can’t.”
Kaplan is among the lawyers who worked pro bono on Thibodeaux’s case. Neither he nor relatives of Thibodeaux could immediately be reached for comment Monday, but Kaplan told the Star Tribune that Thibodeaux “had an impact on everyone who had a privilege of knowing him.”
Thibodeaux was 22 years old and working as a deckhand on a Mississippi River barge when he was arrested in the killing of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne. Thibodeaux was among those questioned in Champagne’s rape and murder, and he confessed after a nine-hour interrogation, The Washington Post reported after his 2012 exoneration.
“I didn’t know that I had done it,” Thibodeaux said at one point, according to a police transcript. “But I done it.”
Thibodeaux later recanted his false confession, saying he had been scared by investigators’ threats of the death penalty and grief-stricken over his cousin’s death. Despite no other evidence linking Thibodeaux to the 1996 crime, he was convicted and a year later sent to Louisiana’s death row.
For the next 15 years, Thibodeaux endured 23 hours a day of solitary confinement at Angola, the maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana that houses death row prisoners.
Lawyers, including Kaplan, spent years establishing that Thibodeaux’s recanted confession was inconsistent with the physical evidence from the investigation and that DNA tests eventually showed no connection linking him to the crime.
After he was released in 2012, Kaplan and others helped Thibodeaux restart his life. He moved to Minnesota, earned his GED and became a long-haul trucker, according to his obituary.
Thibodeaux received his first dose of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine in early August and returned to work, the Star Tribune reported. But within weeks, he collapsed in an emergency room in Florida and was hospitalized.
His obituary noted that Thibodeaux’s years of imprisonment had left him traumatized and prone to “nightmares that returned him to the harrowing experience of his solitary confinement in a small single cell and the crushing despair, loneliness, and hopelessness.”
Still, Thibodeaux worked to live a normal life after exoneration so his fears wouldn’t constrain him the way prison did — and so he could reconnect with his son.
“That I would turn this into another prison, be scared to go out for a ride or walk or just go to the store, you know? That is probably what I am most proud of,” Thibodeaux told NBC affiliate KARE 11 in a 2013 interview. “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.”