By William Fisher
I told this story to a few friends last week. They were as blown away as I was. They called it the only "good news" story all week. Since "good news" stories are few and far between in my line of work, let me share it with you.
At one end, it's a story about corruption, cruelty, bad police work, and a criminal justice system that's broken beyond repair and grows more sclerotic by the day, and the rage triggered by injustice "in plain sight" being ignored by authorities.
So far, doesn't sound much like a good news story? Right? Stay with me.
The good news parts of the story are about the determination of the human spirit, the compassion to want to correct injustice, intimate knowledge of the law and all its hazardous potholes and alleys, and the toughness to never give up.
Fifteen years ago, in 1997, a 24-year-old Louisiana man was convicted of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step cousin, Chrystal Champagne.
The case was had all the earmarks of a slam-dunk: The young man, Damon A. Thibodeaux , had confessed. He admitted his guilt after nine hours of non-stop interrogation by police. He later recanted that confession.
He was sentenced to death. He says he almost gave up hope. "But if you give up hope in here, you begin to die," he said.
He never gave up. And that's one of the main reasons this young man, now 38, walked out of Angola Prison last week, a free man, after an order by a Jefferson Parish court overturning the conviction and dismissing the indictment. Jefferson Parish includes most of the suburbs of New Orleans .
In walking out of what he had to call home after almost 15 years, Damon A. Thibodeaux became the 18th person to serve time on Louisiana's death row, only to be exonerated later by DNA evidence and a bunch of remarkable pro bono lawyers who refused to cave, even facing the entire panoply of prison officials, judges, and other officers of the court.
These brave men and women spent 12 years interviewing figures involved in the case, reading thousands of pages of testimony, and reviewing DNA tests that became more credible as the science itself matured.
Mr. Thibodeaux enjoyed one asset that's not very often present when the requirement is for a full post-mortem of a case: The District Attorney, U.S. District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr. Connick joined the Innocence Project and Thibodeaux's other counsel in agreeing to overturn Thibodeaux's conviction and death sentence after DNA and other evidence proved that he had not committed the crime for which he had been coerced into falsely confessing.
A more conventional scenario finds prosecutors unwilling to re-test DNA samples because of the cost involved, or saying they've been lost. Frequently, both statements are untrue. Fear of professional embarrassment -- and collateral career damage -- is the real reason for their opacity.
That opacity was not part of the Thibodeaux case. That fact and his release gave him the honor of being the 300th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the US.
Listen to Barry Scheck -- whom you may remember as the DNA wizard at the OJ Simpson trial: "Like the other 299 DNA exonerees, there is no question that Mr. Thibodeaux suffered terribly because of the faults in the criminal justice system," said Scheck, who is a founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law.
"But the incredible cooperation that we have received from District Attorney Connick is a powerful illustration of how transformative DNA evidence has been to the criminal justice system. District Attorneys now recognize that the system doesn't always get it right, and many, like District Attorney Connick and his team, are committed to getting to the truth. This case can serve as a model to other district attorneys around the country who are interested in developing conviction integrity units to review old cases."