A wrongly convicted 47-year-old man who spent 15 years on death row in a Louisiana prison before being exonerated by DNA in 2012 has died of COVID-19.
“The Innocence Project mourns the loss of Damon Thibodeaux, an incredibly kind and gentle person, who spent 16 years wrongly imprisoned in Louisiana. He was the 142nd person exonerated from death row and was never compensated for his lost freedom,” the organization said in a tweet.
Thibodeaux, who died Sept. 2 after spending a third of his life behind bars, moved to Minnesota to restart his life as a long-haul trucker and eventually settled in Texas with his family, the Star-Tribune reported.
He was on the road when he landed in an intensive care unit in Jacksonville, Florida, a few days after getting his first dose of the Moderna vaccine — and was expecting to soon be released when he died, according to the paper.
“Bro, I’m ready to get out of this place and come home,” Thibodeaux told his younger brother, David, shortly before his death.
They were almost the exact words he reportedly told him right before he was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola in 2012.
“The world lost the infectious smile and joy of Damon Thibodeaux,” read the obituary published by The Times-Picayune.
The New Orleans native was arrested in 1996, at age 22, while working as a deckhand on a Mississippi barge and accused of raping and murdering his cousin, Crystal Champagne, the paper reported.
“After more than nine hours of interrogation by police and after denying involvement multiple times, Damon eventually cracked, and gave the police a false confession to the crime, saying ‘I didn’t know that I had done it, but I done it,’” according to the outlet.
“Even though the confession didn’t match the key facts of the crime scene or the murder, and even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, he was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to death based on that false confession,” the report said.
DNA evidence finally cleared him of the crime and he moved to Minnesota.
“He embraced his new life free from bars, chains, and constant surveillance. He earned his GED and became a long-haul trucker,” The Times-Picayune reported.
“He traveled the nation and even the world talking about his experience and the danger of wrongful convictions and the death penalty to civic groups and leaders, courts, and legislators,” his obit read.
At the time of his death, a claim for compensation was pending for his years in the slammer.
“It’s so unfair. I’m struggling to make peace with it, but you can’t,” Steve Kaplan, a retired Minneapolis attorney who helped free Thibodeaux while working for the Fredrikson and Byron law firm, told the Star-Tribune.
“He had an impact on everyone who had a privilege of knowing him,” Kaplan added.