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The Penalty for the wrongfully accused

12th March 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

In a perfect world, Damon Thibodeaux would receive an apology for the 15 years he spent on death row, mostly in solitary confinement, in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison.

In a truly just society, the law enforcement officials who coerced him into a false confession in the murder and alleged rape of his 14-year-old step cousin in 1996 would tell him they’re sorry for steamrolling him into admitting a crime he didn’t commit.

And the prosecutors and court officials who helped convict the former Harvey, La., resident in Jefferson Parish court in 1997 would say to him, “We made a mistake.”

But Thibodeaux is realistic, with an awareness — perhaps gained by a decade and a half of undeserved imprisonment and impending execution — of the stark reality that such apologies just won’t happen.

During a Q&A last Wednesday – more than five years after he was exonerated and released in 2012, at age 38 — at Tulane Law School following a screening of “The Penalty,” a new documentary that includes his once-tragic but ultimately triumphant fight for freedom, Thibodeaux was asked if he’s received any apology of that sort as of now.

“No,” he said flatly, “and they never will.”

That’s because Thibodeaux and his attorneys continue to battle for compensation from the state in return for his 15 years wrongly on death row. If the state apologizes for convicting an innocent man, Louisiana would be on the hook for damages.

“It opens them up to litigation,” he said, adding, “I got an, ‘I’m sorry it took so long [to free him]’ from the district attorney.”

So Thibodeaux is moving on with his life, and doing a pretty good job of it. Now a truck driver in Austin, Texas, he’s settled into a relationship with his new girlfriend and continues to savor the type of freedom that was ripped from him years ago. At last week’s screening, Thibodeaux looks almost nothing like he did when he was released in 2012, when he emerged from prison wearing a plain white T-shirt and a short-cropped haircut, and looking thin and gaunt from his ordeal. As he answered questions, he was adorned with a bright green Scooby Doo shirt (bought for him by his girlfriend), baggy pants and colorful Chuck Taylors. His hair was shaggy and almost pitch black, hanging across his forehead and nearly reaching his shoulders.

It’s all part of his new life, one in which he has forged happiness and relative success out of nothing, a phoenix risen.

However, Thibodeaux—who, when released, became the 300th wrongly convicted person, and 18th on death row, exonerated by DNA evidence—also knows how fortunate he is compared to other death-row exonerees. He was released to a sturdy support system of family members and attorneys who remained dedicated to him and his cause. He was able to get a job and build a new life, first in Minnesota (where one of Thibodeaux’s lawyers invited him to stay with him and his family), and now in Austin.

Others, though, have had an often frighteningly different experience. “Each exoneree has his or her own hurdles when they walk out that gate,” he said. “For some it’s hard to find work, and I know guys who still wash their clothes in the sink because it’s what they always did in a little cell.”

For many freed men and women, he said, it’s simply about “existing day by day.” Some slip into alcoholism or substance abuse, and more than a few ultimately commit suicide because the roadblocks in front of them seem so insurmountable.

“The Penalty” was directed by British filmmaker Will Francome and follows the tales of three death row inmates and the impact their crimes had on themselves and those around them. In addition to Thibodeaux, the film depicts the struggles of a mother of a murder victim to trudge through the painful, seemingly endless sentencing process of a guilty defendant. The third segment involves one Columbus, defense attorney’s fight against the application of a controversial, untested cocktail of drugs scheduled to be used during his client’s execution. Through those stories, a tortured of the death penalty system in many U.S. states, and the complex, often insensible and inhumane machinations involved in the process.

Wednesday’s event was hosted by Equal Justice USA, a national organization aimed at transforming the justice system more equitably and enhance support systems for those affected by crime, including capital cases; and the Promise of Justice Initiative, a grass-roots, non-profit group pushing for humane, just and fair treatment of individuals caught in the criminal justice system.

One key facet of these and similar groups is the current battle to repeal the death penalty in Louisiana, which many critics believe is one of the most fundamentally broken capital punishment process in the country.

Last Wednesday, the Promise of Justice Initiative’s Samantha Bosalavage reported on the pair of parallel bills currently before the Louisiana State Legislature, one in the Senate and one in the House. Both will possibly be discussed when the Legislature convenes this week, Bosalavage said, adding that the POJI and other activist organizations are striving to see a bill pass that abolishes the death penalty in Louisiana.

“We’re hoping to be a leader and become the first Southern state to do so,” she said. Francome, the director of the “The Penalty,” said at last week’s forum that he became involved in the death penalty controversy about a dozen years ago and met Thibodeaux four or five years ago and immediately set about making the Harvey native’s story part of “The Penalty,” Francome’s third film.

The director said the death penalty debate is a powerful one, and one from which he couldn’t turn away.

“Once you’re in that world, it’s hard to ignore it,” Francome said. “When you hear these stories, they are very compelling, and you feel very outraged.”

Also attending the screening last week was Denny LeBoeuf, an attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Appeals Project who served as part of Thibodeaux’s legal team, who said for many citizens, capital punishment is almost an abstraction, a controversy that’s passionate but also detached from their daily existence.

Therein lies part of the problem, LeBoeuf said.

“Most Americans don’t have anything to do with the death penalty,” she said. “It’s removed from their lives. But once you see it…it’s just so wrong.”

LeBoeuf, herself a graduate of the Tulane Law School, added that she continues to be taken aback with how many people recoil at the idea of abolishing the death penalty to prevent the executions of innocent people.

“I didn’t think that would be controversial,” she said.

“The Penalty” is being screened several times in Louisiana. The tour began with a showing in Baton Rouge March 6, and the Tulane screening was followed by another one in New Orleans Sunday. Future showings will take place in Shreveport and Lafayette.

Last week at Tulane, after the film concluded, the classroom was blanketed in pregnant silence, with a few audience members wiping away tears. In a post-release interview in the film, Thibodeaux says he felt like the Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland,” facing a surreal but joyous new reality, especially compared to the bleak outlook that can suffocate you on death row.

“You have to come face to face with your own mortality,” he says chillingly. Regarding his legal action to receive compensation from the state, he notes that the legal process will be long and difficult, and ultimately might fail.

“There’s really not much I can do about it,” he says, resigned to the situation.

And he’s still waiting for that apology.

This article originally published in the March 12, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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