On July 19, 1996, at around 5:15 p.m., 14-year old Crystal Champagne left her apartment in Marrero, Louisiana to walk to a nearby supermarket. When she didn’t return home as expected, her mother went looking for her. At around 6:45 p.m., her father and 21-year-old step-cousin, Damon Thibodeaux, also went out to look for her, as did several neighbors. The search continued until the following afternoon, when friends of the family heard that a girl who looked like Crystal had been seen walking on the levee the previous evening. Not long after, Champagne’s body was found near the levee. She was partially naked and had been strangled with a wire.
Before the girl’s body was found, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department investigators began interviewing people who had been with Champagne before she disappeared. An officer was interviewing Thibodeaux – who had been at the Champagne’s home when Crystal left for the store – when he was informed that her body had been found. A homicide detective then took over the questioning.
Thibodeaux initially said he knew nothing about the murder. He agreed to a polygraph test, which police said indicated deception regarding the girl’s death. During further questioning, he said that he had dreamed about a man raping and strangling a woman on a levee. Eventually, after nine hours of questioning, Thibodeaux said that he had raped and murdered Crystal. He was arrested and charged with both crimes. After he was allowed to eat and rest, Thibodeaux quickly recanted his confession, but was ignored.
At Thibodeaux’s 1997 trial, the prosecution built its case around his confession to the rape and murder. There was no physical evidence linking Thibodeaux to the crimes, and though Crystal was found undressed, they found no semen on her body and no other physical evidence that she had been raped. A police officer testified that the semen could have been eaten by maggots.
A week after the crime, detectives questioned two women they found walking on the levee. Both said they saw a man pacing and acting nervously on the evening of the murder. Both women picked a photo of Thibodeaux from a photographic lineup and both identified him at trial.
Thibodeaux’s attorney argued that detectives coerced the confession and suggested facts of the crime to him during their interrogation. On October 3, 1997, a jury convicted Thibodeaux of first-degree murder and rape. He was sentenced to death.
Thibodeaux’s attorneys filed motions for a new trial and for a post-verdict judgment of acquittal, which the trial court denied. His lawyers then appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, alleging numerous errors at trial. Most significantly, they argued that Thibodeaux’s confession was false and unreliable and should not have admitted. They claimed that Thibodeaux, who was psychologically fragile and highly suggestible, had been fed details of the crime that came to form the confession. The Court upheld his conviction on September 8, 1999.
In 2007, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office agreed to reinvestigate the case with the Innocence Project and other lawyers who volunteered to work on the case. DNA testing as well as other forensic testing was performed and investigators interviewed numerous witnesses.
The investigation revealed that the women who identified Thibodeaux as the man they had seen pacing near the crime scene had seen Thibodeaux’s photo in the news media before police showed them the photo line-up. Moreover, the date of the sighting turned out to be the day after the body was found, when Thibodeaux was already in custody.
Extensive DNA testing on items recovered from the scene of the crime failed to detect any trace of biological material connecting Thibodeaux to the murder. The tests also showed that despite Thibodeaux’s confession to rape, Crystal had not in fact been sexually assaulted. And DNA testing on the cord used to strangle Crystal identified a male DNA profile that did not belong to Thibodeaux.
The reinvestigation established firmly that Thibodeaux’s confession was false. He claimed to have raped Champagne when in fact no rape occurred. He said he strangled her with a gray speaker wire he took from his car, when in fact she was strangled with a red cord that had been tied to a tree near the crime scene. The prosecution consulted an expert in false confessions, who concluded, as did the defense, that the confession was the result of police pressure, exhaustion, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty.
On September 29, 2012, Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr., joined the Innocence Project, the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana and the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron in a motion to vacate Thibodeaux’s conviction and death sentence and dismiss the charges against him, and he was released directly from death row that afternoon.
-- Alexandra Gross