Freed death row inmate starting over in Minn.

7:58 AM, Oct 9, 2012   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Damon Thibodeaux had plenty of time to contemplate his future during his 16 years in prison on Louisiana's death row and after being freed last week, is certain Minnesota will offer him the new beginning he's long dreamed of.

"So far, it is a beautiful place, everyone is nice and welcoming," he said, during a walk around Lake Calhoun, where he contemplated his new freedoms, a fall day, the beauty of Minnesota lakes, and especially his unshackled feet.

Thibodeaux's Minneapolis attorneys are the main reason he'll now call Minnesota home, after a judge overturned his murder conviction last week. According to the Innocence Project, he is the 300th prisoner freed after DNA evidence showed he was innocent, and the 18th person to be released from death row.

Just a week ago, the 38-year-old spent 23 hours a day in a small cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

"It's chaotic, any one day you don't know what is going to happen to you. Any one day a judge can sign an execution order they can carry you away and kill you," he said.

In 1997, Thibodeaux was convicted and sentenced to death after he confessed to the July 19, 1996, rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, in Westwego, Louisiana. But soon after, he protested, saying he was forced into a false confession after a nine hour interrogation and lack of food and sleep.

His case landed in the right hands at the Minneapolis based Fredrikson & Byron law firm, where back in 2000, pro bono case manager Pam Wandzel urged her fellow legal team to take a second look.

"There was something about Damon's case that spoke to me, he was young, and the facts didn't fit. His direct appeals lawyer felt very strongly about his innocence," said Wandzel.

"As soon as I got into the case, I said this is ridiculous, the timeline doesn't permit him to have committed it," said Steve Kaplan, a tax litigation attorney, who spent thousands of hours pouring over Thibodeaux's case. Kaplan twice traveled to Louisiana to meet with Thibodeaux while he was still on death row.

"I saw a young man who looked to me like he was scared. He was meeting a lawyer, who he never hired. I do remember when we parted, the guards took him from the visiting area, he turned around, he looked at me and gave me a smile. And I won't forget that," said Kaplan.

Kaplan, his legal team, and the New York Innocence Project spent the past 12 years fighting for Thibodeaux, believing DNA evidence would set him free.

"The clothing Damon had been wearing on the day of murder was subjected to DNA testing. The victim's clothing at the crime scene subject to DNA testing, and every time a DNA test came back, it excluded Damon," said Kaplan.

Last week, he walked out of prison walls where Wandzel and Kaplan waited along with a cheering crowd of family and friends. Since his release, Thibodeaux reunited with his 20-year-old son and is adjusting to a new world of technology. He's never used a cell phone and is getting used to a new gadget called a "Kindle." He'll also learn to drive a car once again.

Until then, he has a place to stay until he can plot his first step. Steve Kaplan offered to take Thibodeaux in until he can secure an apartment. Kaplan also says Minnesota's superior social services will provide the transition Thibodeaux needs.

"My wife and I decided we would love to have him stay with us, we live downtown so its' a great way for him to get the feel of the city," said Kaplan.

Thibodeaux says he can think of no better way to begin again, adding that cold weather doesn't even matter after the conditions he has endured.

"I hope I can make a decent life here. I guess that is the biggest point, not disappointing those that helped me. They put forth time and effort and money in the process," Thibodeaux said.

The two men once separated by walls and miles are now tied together with a greater conviction, all along, both believed in possibility.

"Whatever he does will be good enough for us, we want him to be happy, form friendships and live the life we all take for granted. But which he hasn't had for the last 16 years," said Kaplan.

Kaplan says Thibodeaux's case shows a profound need for adequate representation for inmates, especially on death row. He says many of the accused cannot afford a private lawyer, and public lawyers assigned to represent them at trial often don't have the resources or time to investigate for prepare for trial.

Authorities in Louisiana have now reopened Crystal Champagne's murder case.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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