Minneapolis attorney Steve Kaplan helps to free death row inmate Damon Thibodeaux, who had been wrongly convicted of rape and murder

Steve Kaplan (left), a lawyer with Fredrikson & Byron, led his firm’s efforts to exonerate Louisiana death row inmate Damon Thibodeaux. (Photo by Mordecai Specktor)

For more than a century, juries in criminal cases in the United States have been instructed that defendants are entitled to the “presumption of innocence”: The state has the responsibility to prove that a person accused of a crime is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The presumption of innocence is derived from writings that go back to the Bible and to Maimonides, who wrote in the 12th century that “it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

English jurist William Blackstone updated this concept, in the 18th century, when he wrote that it is “better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

In practice, however, the innocent sometimes are ensnared by a criminal justice system that goes off the rails. Such was the case with Damon Thibodeaux, a Mississippi River workboat deckhand from Texas, who traveled to New Orleans to attend two family weddings. When his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, was found murdered in July 1996, police brought in Thibodeaux for a lengthy interrogation.

After nine hours of police grilling, and going without sleep for more than 30 hours, Thibodeaux cracked and falsely confessed to committing rape and murder.

Recalling the police interrogation, Thibodeaux said, “At first it was just routine, but as the night goes on, things progressed to a point where you realize that, look, they’re never going to let you go, and it’s either you give them what they want or they’re just going to keep at it.”

The American Jewish World recently conducted a lengthy interview with Thibodeaux and Steven Z. Kaplan, a litigator with the Fredrikson & Byron firm. The interview took place in a conference room at the firm’s offices on the 40th floor of U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.

Kaplan served as the lead lawyer for Fredrikson & Byron’s pro bono work on Thibodeaux’s case. He and other lawyers from the firm worked in partnership with Barry Scheck and his associates with the Innocence Project; Denny LeBoeuf, of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana; and Caroline Tillman, also formerly with the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana.

In 1997, Thibodeaux was brought to court. After a trial that took just three days, and a jury deliberation of under an hour, Thibodeaux was convicted of his step-cousin’s rape and strangulation. After another brief discussion, jurors decided that the 22-year-old convict should be put to death.

Thibodeaux was transferred to death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. For 15 years, Thibodeaux was kept in a 6- by 9-foot cell for 23 hours a day.

“You can come out of the cell once a day,” he explained, about the life of a death row inmate. “And Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday you can give up that one hour to go in the yard. But when you come out, you have to handle all of your business: your phone calls, your shower, any legal business you have on the phone, your exercise time, if you want to run.”

When he entered the Angola prison, in 1997, Thibodeaux, who is bespectacled and mild-mannered, with short brown hair combed down on his forehead, thought that his future was foreclosed.

“I got this false confession sitting out there for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. No one’s going to take this case. That’s what I thought: no one’s going to touch this case,” he recalled.

The previous pro bono capital defense effort by Fredrikson & Byron involved another Louisiana inmate, Dobie Gillis Williams. He was executed by lethal injection on Jan. 9, 1999. He was one of the 28 Louisiana inmates put to death, by either electrocution or lethal injection, since 1976.

“The first death penalty case this firm had, I knew the guy, I was in the cell next to him,” Thibodeaux commented, regarding Williams, who was convicted of murder. “It was in ’99.”

Thibodeaux also said that he knew Leslie Dale Martin, who was executed on May 10, 2002; and Gerald Bordelon, who was killed by lethal injection on Jan. 10, 2010.

“He actually gave up his appeals,” Thibodeaux remarked about Bordelon. “Louisiana now has a law that allows death row inmates to easily give up their appeals if they wish. It’s not something that they have to go through an elaborate court process anymore. They just present a document, you sign it, and 90 days later you have your execution date.”

Thibodeaux, however, saw a glimmer of hope after his first visit from Denny LeBoeuf. They conferred for two hours. “I can get you out, if you give me the chance,” Thibodeaux recalls LeBoeuf telling him. “I sat there for a minute, I just looked at her and said, ‘Okay.’”

LeBoeuf, who is now director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and is based in Durham, N.C., first began working on Thibodeaux’s case in 1998. From death row, Thibodeaux contacted the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate those wrongly convicted.

“Fredrikson & Byron gets involved,” Thibodeaux explained. “Everyone starts dissecting this case, and they’re like: ‘Well, where’s the investigation?’ There was no investigation done [into the murder of Crystal Champagne]. So I start thinking that maybe there’s a chance they’re going to figure this out. I changed my mindset and started keeping in touch with everyone.”

Thibodeaux started calling his lawyer in Minneapolis. “We became good friends over the phone,” Kaplan said.

The legal team working to extricate Thibodeaux from his hellish situation began quietly. Kaplan mentioned that after the execution of Williams, in 1999, Fredrikson & Byron began looking for another capital defense case; they decided to work on behalf of Thibodeaux, and took his case in 2000.

By 2007, the task of freeing Thibodeaux focused on convincing Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick that a miscarriage of justice had taken place. And the D.A. had to deal with the sheriff’s office, his main client, which firmly believed that Thibodeaux was the guilty party.

For more than 11 years, Kaplan, LeBoeuf, Scheck and dozens of other lawyers spent thousands of hours researching and investigating all aspects of the Thibodeaux case. Forensic scientists and experts on false confessions were hired. A “bug guy” was brought in, according to Kaplan, to look into the prosecution’s contention that the evidence of the alleged rape, the perpetrator’s semen, was missing because it had been consumed by maggots.

Of course, there was Thibodeaux’s “confession,” which he recanted. The district attorney brought in a forensic psychologist from New York, who interviewed Thibodeaux and about two dozen other people, including Thibodeaux’s family members. Connick, according to Kaplan, wanted an answer to the question: “Why would a person confess to a rape and a murder that he didn’t commit?”

Kaplan explained, “There’s a very highly developed set of psychological techniques that are brought to bear in the interrogation room.” It is known as the “Reid Technique,” after the firm John E. Reid and Associates, Inc., which developed the methods widely employed by cops.

“Basically, the purpose of the interrogation is to get a confession — it’s not to get information, it’s to get a confession,” Kaplan continued. “Now, if you’re going to get a confession from a guilty subject, the last thing that that guilty subject intends to do, once he sits down with the police, is confess… So, you have to have a set of very powerful techniques to convince this guilty subject that his only or best option is to confess. The police are allowed to lie to the subject, they are allowed to say they have evidence that they don’t have. They’re allowed to say, for example, that an alibi witness is not vouching for them, when, in fact, they may never have even spoken to the alibi witness — or the alibi witness has confirmed the alibi.”

In Thibodeaux’s interrogation, sheriff’s office investigators also conducted an apparently bogus lie detector test. When they returned to the interrogation room and told Thibodeaux that he had failed the polygraph test, he collapsed on the floor.

More than five years after Thibodeaux’s defense team began working with the district attorney, Connick agreed that Thibodeaux’s conviction and death sentence should be overturned. On Sept. 27, 2012, Judge Patrick McCabe, of Louisiana’s 24th District Court, ordered Thibodeaux’s “immediate release.” Early the next afternoon, Thibodeaux left his cell on death row and walked out of the Angola prison.

“It’s a surreal walk,” Thibodeaux said about his release from prison, according to a report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. “It’s not something you can prepare for, because you’ve been in those [death row] conditions so long.”

Thibodeaux was the 300th prisoner in the U.S. released after DNA evidence showed that he was innocent, according to the Innocence Project; and he was one of 18, out of the 300, who was on death row.

After 16 years in prison, 15 years on death row, Thibodeaux enjoyed a reunion with friends and family, and a stay in a New Orleans luxury hotel for a few nights. The hotel staff, when they found out who the person being trailed by reporters and photographers was, put Thibodeaux in the presidential suite, according to Kaplan. At the age of 38, Thibodeaux took special pleasure in spending time with his son, Joshua, who will soon turn 21.

After his exoneration, Thibodeaux traveled north to Minneapolis, where he is making a new life. He spent his first seven weeks here living with Kaplan, and his wife, Norma. The Kaplans are members of Beth El Synagogue.

Thibodeaux, who has received assistance from Project for Pride in Living, and many others, now has an apartment in south Minneapolis, and is working on getting a driver’s license. He says that adapting to new “technology” has been a challenge; but he now works for Pitney Bowes, the office equipment company, in the Fredrikson & Byron office.

There is a mechanism in Louisiana to compensate those who have been wrongfully imprisoned. Thibodeaux can petition the Louisiana Innocence Fund, which can award $25,000 per year, for a maximum of 10 years of wrongful imprisonment. Another $80,000 in “lost opportunity” compensation also could be available. The maximum award of $330,000 would be paid out to Thibodeaux over 10 years, if the Louisiana Legislature agrees to allocate the money. Compensation through this course could take several years, according to Kaplan. There is also the possibility of a lawsuit against certain law enforcement personnel in Louisiana, including those who coerced a confession from Thibodeaux and sent him to death row.

Kaplan, who is 66, allowed that he probably won’t head up another capital defense case. He said that, at his age, the time commitment is too daunting. He mentioned that “a lot of Jewish lawyers are involved in capital defense work,” including Innocence Project co-directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and senior staff attorney Vanessa Potkin.

He also discussed how the various streams of Judaism in North America have taken positions opposing the death penalty.

“Damon’s case is really — from my personal perspective, my moral and religious perspective — a question of what is really the essence of justice, and how does the death penalty fit within [Judaism’s] tradition of what is justice,” said Kaplan.

“One of the things that strikes me about Damon’s case is how fortunate he was in getting the death penalty,” Kaplan declares. It is a strange-sounding statement.

But Kaplan makes the point that without the notoriety that comes with a death sentence, Thibodeaux likely would not have benefited from the formidable legal team that ended up working on his behalf. “The irony is, once he’s convicted, now he’s going to get a defense, because somebody is going to come and look at his case with a commitment to seeing it through. If he ended up with a life sentence, he would disappear into the population at Angola.”

“I would still be there now,” agrees Thibodeaux.

“He fell into the death penalty queue, instead of the life without parole queue,” said Kaplan. “Because the jury gave him death, he actually ends up in a better position… He was fortunate in this odd, ironic way that he ends up with a death sentence, which leads to his exoneration.”

Steve Kaplan will deliver the d’var Torah on Saturday morning, Feb. 2 at Beth El Synagogue. Following services, Kaplan, Damon Thibodeaux and Rabbi Alexander Davis will lead a discussion in the Beth El Learning Center on a variety of death penalty topics, including the views of various religious faiths on capital punishment, and some of the key issues presented by Thibodeaux’s case.

A Web site has been created (damonthibodeaux.com), which contains information and press accounts about the case, and information about making donations to support Damon Thibodeaux. Checks payable to “Damon A. Thibodeaux” can be sent to: Damon Thibodeaux, c/o Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., 200 S. Sixth St., Suite 4000, Minneapolis, MN 55402-1425.

The AJW is grateful to Shep Harris, a government relations specialist with Fredrikson & Byron (and mayor of Golden Valley), for suggesting this story.

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Mordecai Specktor's picture
Mordecai Specktor

Mordecai Specktor is the editor of American Jewish World.