‘Anyone Who Says We Live Comfortably on Death Row Has Obviously Never Been There’

Damon Thibodeaux

Damon Thibodeaux was released after 15 years on death row.

Damon Thibodeaux lived under the threat of execution for more than a decade.

Now 38, Damon was convicted of the murder of 14-year-old Chrystal Champagne, his step-cousin, and sentenced to death in 1997. But he always insisted on his innocence and after spending 15 years in prison, he finally walked out of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola – one of the harshest prisons in the country – a free man. This is his story.

Damon’s case is far from unusual. Error is one of the hallmarks of the capital justice system in the USA. The number of cases in which people sentenced to death have later been exonerated – more than 140 in the last four decades – should give even the death penalty’s most ardent supporters pause for thought.

In police custody in the early hours of July 21, 1996, after an interrogation lasting nearly nine hours, 19-year-old Damon confessed to the murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin – despite having repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with the crime.

A few hours later, he told his lawyer that, exhausted, he had falsely confessed in order to end the interrogation.

However, armed with this “confession” – containing details of the crime that were incorrect – the prosecution obtained a conviction and a jury voted unanimously for the death sentence.

Life at Angola
What followed for Damon were 15 years of solitary confinement on death row at Louisiana’s maximum security prison at Angola.

“In Angola, you are in a cell 23 hours a day, you have no contact with anyone. All of your food is brought to you. You get one hour a day, three times a week, in the yard. Or you can stay inside and have one hour a day on the hallway. In that hour, you have to shower, make any phone calls, do your exercising or whatever,” Damon told Amnesty International.

“On death row, it’s unbearably hot in the summer, so hot you stand around in your boxers all day and you sweat, you get no sleep at night. Anyone who says we live comfortably on death row obviously has no idea what death row is like. It is the most uncomfortable place.”

“I had visits from my family four times in 15 years. For some families, it’s not easy making that trip to Angola because it’s so far outside of the city.”

End of the Line
Damon says the worst thing about being under a death sentence is knowing that the state intends to kill you.

“Thankfully, I didn’t have to face an execution date. The fact that the state wants to kill you is something that you have to come to terms with by yourself. It’s not something people deal with in the same manner.”

Today a free man, Damon says he always believed he was going to walk out of Angola, but did not know when. An unusual aspect of his case was that in 2007, faced with evidence of wrongful conviction, the District Attorney’s office agreed to a joint reinvestigation of the case with defense lawyers.

“I knew I was going to be exonerated probably two to three years before it happened. The District Attorney wanted to make absolutely sure he wasn’t releasing anyone dangerous into society, which is understandable. It’s not easy to release someone that you’ve prosecuted and put on death row.”

DNA Evidence
As part of the reinvestigation, the District Attorney consulted an expert on disputed confessions, who concluded that Damon’s confession was unsound. The District Attorney then announced that “the primary evidence in this case, the confession, is unreliable. Without the confession, the conviction cannot stand and therefore in the interest of justice it must be vacated.”

In an order issued on September 27, 2012, a judge ordered Thibodeaux’s release from prison. Forensic testing had found no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and DNA testing of a sample of blood found on wire used to strangle the victim revealed DNA of a male other than Damon.

According to The Innocence Project, which was also involved in the reinvestigation of the case, more than 300 prisoners across the USA – including 18 who were on death row – have been exonerated in the past few decades after DNA evidence played a major part in establishing their innocence. However, in most crimes there is no DNA evidence that can be tested and so that route is not available for many convicted prisoners claiming innocence.

“Even though I knew about my release a couple of years beforehand, it is not something you can prepare for emotionally. When I crossed through the door, I felt like a new man. It was a very surreal experience. You spend 15 years in a prison cell, locked down for 23 hours a day and then you are out. It’s daunting at the same time because there’s so much that’s happened in the last 15 years. But I was able to walk out with my head high,” Damon said.

New World
Thibodeaux is now rebuilding his life in Minnesota, and has a part-time job and a flat. He has not received any compensation from the state and is trying to re-adjust to a free life in a world that has changed in the 15 years he spent behind bars. He is also reconnecting with his now 21-year-old son.

“We did have television and newspapers so I saw things developing, the digital age, but to have to go back and try to catch up with all that. Even now, it’s a bit of a challenge. I run into something I know nothing about. How to operate my iPod or my computer – I might have to call someone to ask,” he said.

Damon was the 141st prisoner released from death row in the USA since 1973 on the grounds of innocence. A number of prisoners have gone to the execution chamber despite serious questions about their guilt.

“This case is one more reminder of the risk of irrevocable error that comes with the death penalty. Officials across the USA should reflect on what happened to Damon Thibodeaux and work for the abolition of this cruel punishment,” said Rob Freer, USA Researcher at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases, in all countries, unconditionally.

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8 thoughts on “‘Anyone Who Says We Live Comfortably on Death Row Has Obviously Never Been There’

  1. Supporting the death penalty requires that we be perfect in our administration of justice. Yet we are human, so perfection is not possible, and so we must not kill the prisoner, even when it seems obvious that death is deserved.

    • That is why I oppose the death penalty! We are not perfect, nor is the judicial system! How many people have died that were totally innocent? Shame on those who believe in the death penalty. One innocent man's life diminishes all of us.

  2. The doubt factor is the key. If perfection were always possible and the norm I have no problems with the death penalty. In a lot of case's we can do away with quick and painless. Let's see how painful we can make it.
    But like Alan said, perfection is not possible. And the system is filled with abuse. Forced confessions, corrupt DA's, police and courts.

    And since doubt is ramped perhaps we need to ease up on death row conditions a bit.

  3. And this is part of why I don't support the death penalty. That and I don't believe in taking an eye for an eye.

  4. The death penalty is cruel and out dated, as a society we should have learn that it do not stop anybody from committing murderer. If a law is put in place it should work wouldn't you say. What does it say about a State that kills people? To me the State just committed the same thing that it sentenced the person who committed murderer there is no differences in the acts no matter how many excuses we come up with it does not stop the next person. To solve the problem let them live behind bars for the rest of their lives and have to think about what they have done if guilty.

  5. I know some people do terrible things, but what this man must have gone through is 100 times worse: for 15 years he thought he'd be dead in a few days for a crime he didn't commit. Is this a decent treatment for a human being?

  6. I can't imagine what he went through. Just reading this makes me shiver. I can't imagine any situation where the capital punishment would be fair. It is a horrible glitch in the system and I don't know why it still exists.

    • Capital punishment is nothing more but a consequence of one's action. I agree, we have to be absolutely sure that man is guilty and mercilessly killed people before we execute him, but I don't think it's that unfair to use capital punishment although in my opinion solitary confinement for the rest of one's life is more terrible than death

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