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For one lucky guy, Mardi Gras comes early!

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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Thibodeaux echoed that sentiment, adding "I'm grateful to Mr. Connick and his people for studying my case and for their commitment to justice.   I'm looking forward to life as a free man again, but I have great sympathy for the Champagne family that lost their daughter and sister.   I sincerely hope that the person who murdered her is found and tried."  

Crystal Champagne's family last saw her alive on the afternoon of July 19, 1996 when she left the family's Westwego Apartment for a Winn-Dixie at the nearby strip mall.   After she did not return home when expected, her family, several friends, and law enforcement began a search for her that ended on the following evening with the discovery of her body along the levee in Bridge City.

That same evening, law enforcement began interrogating and interviewing potential witnesses, including Thibodeaux.   After some nine hours of interrogation, he provided an apparent confession to raping and murdering the victim.   That confession was virtually the sole basis for his conviction and death sentence in October 1997.

Thibodeaux's legal team included Denise LeBoeuf and Caroline Tillman of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana (LeBoeuf is currently Director of the ACLU's Death Penalty Project and Tillman is now an attorney with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans); Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project; and Steve Kaplan and Richard H. Kyle, Jr., of the Fredrikson & Byron law firm in Minneapolis.  

Assisted by several DNA and world-class forensic scientists, homicide and police interrogation methods expert Thomas Streed, PhD, and private investigators, they obtained evidence demonstrating that Thibodeaux was not the murderer, that the victim had not been raped, and that she had also not been murdered in the manner that Thibodeaux had described after some nine hours of interrogation.

In 2007, Thibodeaux's team approached Connick and his staff, and presented the then-known evidence of actual innocence to them.   Both sides then began a cooperative process that was rigorous and transparent, including mutual exchanges of evidence and information.   Connick was assisted primarily by Steve Wimberly, Esq., and Chief Investigator, Vince Lamia, who reviewed the evidence and actively participated in both the joint investigation and the District Attorney's own independent review of the case.   

During the course of this joint investigation, the parties conducted multiple rounds of DNA and forensic evidence testing of the crime scene evidence and the other physical evidence and interviewed numerous fact witnesses.   This additional evidence confirmed that the confession that Thibodeaux had given was false in every aspect.   In addition, the joint investigation included a thorough examination of the reasons why Thibodeaux had falsely confessed. His lawyers have promised to make this information public at a later time.

The joint effort has also given rise to potential new leads and suspects.   Because, however, the investigation into the murder is ongoing, this information cannot be disclosed at present.

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"This is a tragic illustration of why law enforcement must record the entire interrogation of any witness or potential suspect in any investigation involving a serious crime," said one of Thibodeaux's legal team.  

"When juries learn that the accused has apparently confessed, they invariably have a difficult time questioning the reliability and truthfulness of the confession--unless they can see the entire interrogation and determine whether it's truthful and reliable not only in light of the interrogation methods used in obtaining the confession, but also in light of other evidence that contradicts or disproves the confession."

Another of his attorneys noted, "This journey to freedom was a long time coming.   The solitary conditions that Mr. Thibodeaux was forced to live under as a death row inmate were almost more than he could bear at times, but he never gave up hope that one day he would be free."  

"The death penalty is a human rights violation in any case, for anyone.   But, there can be no stronger argument against capital punishment than the condemnation of a truly innocent man," said Denise LeBoeuf of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana (LeBoeuf is currently Director of the ACLU's Death Penalty Project.)

LeBoeuf added, "Louisiana came--to use Justice Blackmon's phrase--"perilously close to simple murder' and Louisiana citizens should demand a moratorium on executions until they can be assured that there are no more miscarriages of justice like the one that occurred in this case." Since 2000, six innocent people have been exonerated from Louisiana's death row, versus just three executions.

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The 300 DNA exonerees have served a combined 4013 years in prison, with an average of 13 and a half years each.   The real perpetrator was identified in nearly half of the cases, and at least 130 violent crimes could have been prevented if the true perpetrator was initially arrested instead of the wrongly convicted.   More than a third of those cleared by DNA have not been compensated for the time they spent wrongly imprisoned.

While DNA testing has been widely available in criminal prosecutions since the late 90s, people convicted as late as 2008 have been cleared by DNA, indicating that this powerful tool will continue to be helpful in proving wrongful convictions for the foreseeable future.   

The leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA is eyewitness misidentification, which has played a role in nearly 75 percent of the 300 exonerations.   Unvalidated or improper forensic science played a role in approximately half (51 %) of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. False confessions and admissions lead to wrongful convictions in just over a quarter (27%). Informants contributed to wrongful convictions in 18 % of cases.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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