KEY POINTS

  • The man spent 15 years on death row after he was wrongfully convicted of the 1996 murder of his step-cousin
  • He was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2012 and became a long-haul trucker
  • The Innocence Project, the nonprofit that helped free him, described him as "an incredibly kind and gentle person"

A man who spent 15 years on death row before he was exonerated in 2012 has died of COVID-19. He was 47.

Damon Thibodeaux died on Sept. 2 of complications from COVID-19, The Star Tribune reported. He had spent 16 years behind bars — 15 of them on death row in Louisiana — after he was wrongfully convicted of the 1996 murder of his step-cousin.

"It's so unfair," Steve Kaplan, a retired Minneapolis attorney who helped free Thibodeaux, was quoted as saying. "I’m struggling to make peace with it, but you can’t."

After he was exonerated through DNA testing on Sept. 28, 2012, Thibodeaux moved to Minnesota to restart his life and later settled with his family in Texas. He worked as a long-haul trucker after his release.

Thibodeaux was on the road in early August when he landed in a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, with COVID-19. He received his first vaccine dose against the coronavirus just a few days prior. Shortly before he passed away, Thibodeaux had been expecting to be released after three weeks in and out of intensive care.

"Bro, I'm ready to get out of this place and come home," he told his younger brother, David, on the evening of Sept. 2.

Hours later, a doctor called David and asked his permission to stop resuscitation efforts on his brother. Thibodeaux's lungs had collapsed and his heart had stopped, a nurse told David.

"My heart sunk. I wasn't just being asked to let my brother go. You're asking me [to] let my best friend go.," David said.

The Innocence Project, the nonprofit legal organization that helped free Thibodeaux, described him as "an incredibly kind and gentle person" in a statement released Thursday.

"He was the 142nd person exonerated from death row and was never compensated for his lost freedom," the organization said.

Thibodeaux was a 22-year-old deckhand on a Mississippi River barge in Louisiana in 1996 when his step-cousin Crystal Champagne was strangled to death, according to The Innocence Project. Her body was discovered with a red extension cord wrapped around her neck and evidence of a possible sexual assault.

Thibodeaux, who became a suspect due to his familial relationship with Champagne, denied involvement in her death and agreed to a polygraph, which he was told he had failed.

He later ended up confessing to "consensual and non-consensual sex with the victim and then to beating and murdering her" after nine hours of interrogation — only 54 minutes of which were recorded, The Innocence Project said.

Thibodeaux was convicted and sentenced to death row in Louisiana in 1997 despite the lack of physical evidence linking him to the murder.

Ten years later, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office initiated a joint reinvestigation of Thibodeaux's case with the Innocence Project and the rest of Thibodeaux’s legal team.

Several forensic experts concluded there was no physical evidence linking Thibodeaux to the murder and that Champagne had not been sexually assaulted. DNA testing on the cord found with the victim revealed male DNA that did not belong to Thibodeaux.

Additionally, the eyewitnesses who had initially identified Thibodeaux as the man they saw pacing near the crime scene stated that they had already seen Thibodeaux's photo in the news media before they took part in the identification procedure. They also said the sighting had occurred the day after the body was found, when Thibodeaux was already in custody.

The reinvestigation further confirmed that Thibodeaux's confession was false in every significant aspect, according to The Innocence Project.

fence-2163951_1920 Representation. Damon Thibodeaux spent 15 years on death row before he was exonerated in late 2012. Photo: Pixabay