Man exonerated for rape and murder of 14-year-old girl after 16 years in prison sues Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office

Kyle Barnett Feb. 7, 2014, 8:47pm

A man who was imprisoned for over 16 years, including 15 years on death row, for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and was later released after being exonerated is suing the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and officers.

Damon Thibodeaux filed suit against Sheriff Newell Normand, Lt. Steve Buras, Sgt. Dennis Thornton, Lt. Stacy Phillips, Maj. Walter Gorman, Lt. Maggie Snow, Lt. Hilda Montecino, John and Jane Does 1 to 10 and their insurers in the 24th Judicial District Court.

Thibodeaux claims he was wrongfully arrested and convicted for the 1996 rape and murder of his 14-year-old Crystal Champagne. The plaintiff alleges that the night of the murder on Friday July 19, 1996 he was with Champagne and her family at their Westwego apartment when she left to go to a nearby grocery store when she was last seen with an unknown woman. After Champagne did not return home Thibodeaux claims he engaged in a search for his cousin with her family throughout the apartment complex and strip mall where the grocery store was located throughout the night and into the next day and Champagne’s mother called 911.

Champagne’s body was found the next day in an area near Huey P. Long bridge along the banks of the Mississippi River in Bridge City. The plaintiff asserts that his cousin’s body was found by a former neighbor of the family who was a convicted child molester at 7:30 p.m. the day after she was first reported as missing.

Thibodeaux, who has an IQ of only 79, asserts that although there was no probable cause to interrogate him the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office did so at their Criminal investigations Bureau in Harvey and in doing so used unconstitutional and illegal, tactics to coerce a false confession from him.

The plaintiff alleges the defendants isolated him and refused to allow him to contact an attorney, introduced crime scene information to him, misled him into believing that he could not terminate the interrogation, accusing him of lying, falsely attributing statements about him to Champagne’s parents, falsley claiming they had video evidence proving that he was the rapist, suggesting he blacked out and killed and raped his cousin, telling him he would likely be killed by lethal injection if he did not confess to the crime, denying him the opportunity to rest or sleep and physically intimidating him.

Thibodeaux claims he was physically exhausted at the time of the interrogation due to searching for his cousin for an entire night and day before the interrogation began gave a recorded statement to the Jefferson Parish Sherif’s Office 35 hours after Champagne first went missing denying knowledge of his cousin’s murder after which he was administered a “lie detector” test in which they claim he lied even though the evidence showed otherwise.

A 2:45 a.m. on Sunday July 21, 1996, over four hours after giving his first statement denying involvement in Champagne’s murder, the plaintiff gave a statement in which he described a young girl resembling Champagne being raped and murdered by a black man. Thibodeaux alleges he was then fed more information about the crime and at 4:41 a.m. gave a false confession and was immediately arrested for aggravated rape and first-degree murder.

After the false confession, the plaintiff claims that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office did not conduct a full investigation into the murder scene and instead focused on him as a sole suspect even though some of the details he provided in the confession did not match up with evidence the Sheriff’s Office had.

Thibodeaux was indicted by a grand jury on July 25 1996 – four days after his arrest – and after a trial that completed on Sept. 29, 1997 was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. In 1999, Thibodeaux’s sentence was upheld by the Louisiana State Supreme Court. However, in 2007 the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office agreed to open the case back up and in 2010 DNA testing was done on the clothes Thibodeaux was wearing at the time of his arrest as well as the crime scene and no connection could be made and a expert reviewed both Thibodeaux’s statement in comparison to the evidence found at the crime scene and concluded that the confession must be false.

After it was determined the only thing linking the plaintiff to the crime was the false confession he was exonerated of the crime and released from death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola on Sept. 27, 2012.

The defendants are accused of wrongful conduct, constitutional violations, not appropriately overseeing investigators,

An unspecified amount in damages is sought for punitive damages for 16 years of confinement, pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of freedom, injury to reputation and defamation.

Thibodeaux is represented by Sara A. Johnson of the New Orleans-based The Law Offices of Herbert V. Larson Jr.

The case has been assigned to Division P Judge Lee V. Faulkner Jr.

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