|Damon Thibodeaux with Barry Scheck on the day of his release from prison.|
On September 28, 2012, Damon Thibodeaux became the 300th person to be exonerated through DNA testing. He had served 15 years on Louisiana’s death row for a murder that he didn’t commit. Shortly after his release, the Innocence Project interviewed Thibodeaux to find out how he was adjusting and what he thought needed to change in the criminal justice system.
Looking at your case, the evidence against you was so thin. How did it happen that you were wrongfully convicted?
The district attorney’s election came up when I was wrongfully convicted. They wanted to take this hard-on-crime approach, and I was thrown into the meat grinder. Paul Connick had to restructure his office, and I don’t think he had the time to review the case in depth. Otherwise, I don’t think that he would have allowed my conviction to take place. He delegated the case to others who should have told him that there was a problem with it. If they had sought justice to begin with, they might have had the right person who committed the crime. If you seek justice from the beginning, you will get the conviction. There is no conviction without justice.
You had a court-appointed attorney at trial, right? How was your representation?
He didn’t have the financial support needed to put on a fair defense against the DA’s office. They spend what they need to spend to prosecute a case. The indigent defense boards have limited funds, and I think he was very limited in what he could provide.
How did you get through the 15 years of solitary confinement?
My lawyers would send me books and music. We’re allowed outside of the cell one hour a day, just to come out and sit in the hall. We can sit in front of someone’s cell and play cards, but no contact. Or we can go outside in the yard, which is really small, like a dog pen.
It’s the little things you miss—the simple act of stepping outside and going for a walk. Going to a restaurant. At first, you miss the big things, like being able to travel. And then as time goes on, it’s the small things, your own bed, your own bathroom, some privacy. Being able to have a key and open the door and close the door and lock it. I’m going to have an efficiency apartment soon, and I look forward to it. And I’ll have the keys, I’ll be able to open it.
How are you adjusting to the free world? Do you feel safe?
Sometimes you get an uncomfortable feeling when you’re in a public place, but I jumped into big crowds right away just to get adjusted. That time missing is still there. That big gaping hole is still there. I still know that 16 years of my life is missing. I try to use that as strength to rebuild what’s left. I try to start things new. Sometimes it seems a little daunting, but just put one foot in front of the other. Spend time with yourself, just enjoy a little solitude.
You are the 300th person exonerated through DNA testing? Is that meaningful to you? Or is it just another number?
It did help reinforce to the powers that be, the people that have the power to fix things, that there’s a problem with the system. They see this happening every year, and they sit quietly and do nothing. That’s just as bad as putting someone in prison for something they didn’t do. You have a handful of DA’s who are trying to clean up their offices and trying to ensure that future convictions and past convictions are solid. These few are going against the grain. They have to deal with the sheriffs, and they have to deal with the political backlash as well.
What should be done about the death penalty?
In the South, they’re holding onto the death penalty with bloody fingers. They’re not going to let it go unless the Supreme Court forces them to. If they can’t be convinced not to use the death penalty, then they need to take a long hard look at how frequently they use it. Then you have a lot of guys who aren’t on death row who don’t have the access to the lawyers that death row inmates have. It’s not just about death row anymore. It’s about wrongful incarceration period.