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Crime A man wrongfully spent 16 years on death row. Then died 9 years later from COVID.

17:26  14 september  2021
17:26  14 september  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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A man who spent a third of his life on death row after being wrongfully convicted of murder died of COVID-19, years after being freed.

Damon Thibodeaux died on Aug. 31, nine years after DNA evidence had exonerated him from a murder conviction and released him from solitary confinement at Angola Prison in Louisiana.

a person standing posing for the camera: Damon Thibodeaux © Fredrikson & Byron Law Firm Damon Thibodeaux

"Damon is one of the most unique people I have ever met," Steve Kaplan, Thibodeaux's former lawyer, told USA TODAY.

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"If you met Damon you would not know what he had gone through."

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Thibodeaux was arrested in 1996 for the murder of his 14-year-old cousin Crystal Champagne in New Orleans.

He was in town from Texas to attend a couple of family weddings and while there, he picked up a job on a barge that travelled up and down the Mississippi River.

After three weeks on the barge, Thibodeaux visited Champagne's family when she disappeared. She was found the next day, five miles from the home and brutally beaten, according to Kaplan.

Kaplan said Thibodeaux was questioned by the Jefferson Parish Police Department for nine hours and ultimately gave a false confession. The confession led to a conviction for capital murder and a death penalty sentence.

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On death row, Thibodeaux was locked in his cell for 23 hours a day. He began a routine of cleaning, exercising and reading the bible.

"He created a life outside the cell," Kaplan said.

In 1999, the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson and Byron took on his case along with the lawyers from the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana.

Kaplan got involved in the case in 2001 and the Innocence Project of New York joined in 2002, according to Kaplan. They reinvestigated the case and Thibodeaux's conviction was overturned.

After 16 years behind bars, he became a free man on Sept. 28, 2012.

Thibodeaux was met with by his lawyers, family and a 20-year-old son he hadn't seen in 17 years. He relocated to Minneapolis and lived with Kaplan and his wife for a few months before finding his own apartment. He later began interstate truck driving.

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"He began driving all across the country which was the ultimate freedom," Kaplan said.

Turning his pain into purpose, Thibodeaux became active with a non-profit based in Philadelphia called Witness to Innocence. Damon would go to law schools, colleges and churches to discuss what he experienced on death row.

Jaap Haartsen, Barry Scheck sitting at a table: Damon Thibodeaux talks during a press conference. © Fredrikson & Byron Law Firm Damon Thibodeaux talks during a press conference.

Thibodeaux's life on death row was featured in multiple documentaries including "The Penalty" and "One for Ten," a series about innocence and death row.

He later reconnected with his brother David Thibodeaux and had recently purchased land with him in Texas before his bout with COVID-19.

Damon was hospitalized in Jacksonville, Florida for a month before he died. Kaplan said they believed he was improving enough to be released.

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"When they took him off oxygen, his lungs collapsed and his heart stopped," he said.

"He was only 47, so he lost 16 years of his life behind bars for something he hadn't done," Kaplan said. "The resilience and the strength of mind to endure what he went through on death row takes a mental strength that is beyond my comprehension."

Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalasha. Email: agilbert@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A man wrongfully spent 16 years on death row. Then died 9 years later from COVID.

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