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Innocent but on death row: Damon Thibodeaux shares his story in ‘Stolen Years’

Stolen-yearsFor evidence that the death penalty is broken beyond repair, you don’t need to look any further than the case of Damon Thibodeaux. Sentenced to death after confessing to the murder and rape of his teenage step-cousin, Thibodeaux was in fact innocent: exhausted, he’d made a false confession. And at trial, holes in that admission were not pursued by Thibodeaux’s attorney, who was working in his first murder case while also applying for a job at the district attorney’s office.

Thibodeaux is one of 10 former inmates profiled in “Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned” a new book by veteran “New York Post” crime reporter Reuven Fenton. Fenton graciously agreed to let us run his chapter on Thibodeaux here. With a forward by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from the famed Bob Dylan song, “Stolen Years” is averaging an impressive five stars (out of five) from Amazon reviewers. Select the link to buy the book and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to KCADP via Amazon’s affiliate program.

Read the excerpt here:

Damon Thibodeaux yawns.

It’s six in the morning and he’s just woken from a dreamless sleep. He gazes at the ceiling for a few seconds before hoisting himself up.

It’s so cramped in here, putting on a shirt and pants is a Harry Houdini magic trick. The walls barely fit his five-foot-nine, square-shouldered body. He’s a doberman living in a doghouse built for a dachshund.

Once dressed and washed up, he sits and gazes ahead.

He cracks a smile.

Because he is so tickled by what he does not see: a concrete wall with steel bars in the foreground.

Instead, through the windshield of his truck he sees a sky so brilliantly blue it’s the very color of exhilaration. And where the sky meets the horizon, asphalt—beautiful, sparkling, and stretching for a thousand miles.

After a quick breakfast eaten high in the driver’s seat of his big rig, he turns the key, puts his foot on the clutch and shifts into gear—and starts watching the world unfold. For Thibodeaux, the best scenery is the kind that’s always moving.

“I’ve seen just about every state in the continental US,” he says. “I’ve been over the Rockies, what, seven, eight, times? The view never gets boring. I’ve been through Arizona, Nevada, over the Appalachians, the Ozarks.

“They call it hauling freight, but as far as I’m concerned I get paid to travel the country.”

For fifteen years, nothing moved. Thibodeaux was a death row inmate in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary—better known as “Angola,” or “Alcatraz of the South”—where days bore little difference from weeks, and weeks from months, and months from years. Thibodeaux calls that time “one big black hole” in his life.

“The thing is, a lot of guys try to fill that hole,” Thibodeaux says. “I’m not gonna try to fill it because you can’t fill it…it’s just gone.”

What he chooses to do is look ahead. And he can think of no better vantage point than the one he’s at right now. Sure, the truck’s cab makes for a cramped night’s sleep. And maybe it is sort of cell-like in here. But who cares? In prison it was the involuntary confinement—the inability to step outside to so much as take a piss in the bushes—that man was never meant to endure

*****

It was 1996, and Damon Thibodeaux felt free as a bird.

He was twenty-two and working as a deckhand on a Mississippi River tugboat. He labored from noon to midnight mopping the deck, securing the barge, making sure the lines were in good order.

And when things had quieted down he’d sit on the barge and watch the stars.

No worries, no plans, except maybe getting a pilot’s license so he could captain the boat himself one day. Thibodeaux had recently come back to his hometown of New Orleans after a decade of living in Midland, Texas. When a cousin hooked him up with the deckhand job, he was glad he made the move.

One Friday afternoon in July, while on leave from duty, Thibodeaux visited some distant cousins, the Champagnes, in a suburb of New Orleans. One of the cousins, fourteen-year-old Crystal, asked him for a ride to the Winn-Dixie supermarket to buy some groceries. He didn’t feel like it, so she went by herself.

She didn’t come back.

Her mother went looking for her, then her father. As the hours passed, others joined the effort, including Thibodeaux. They started with the most obvious places, the shopping center and the park where she played softball, but still no sign of Crystal. Then they expanded the search perimeter.

After nearly twenty-four hours of nonstop searching, an exhausted Thibodeaux went home to catch a few hours’ sleep. He threw himself into bed and was just drifting off when he heard a pounding on his door. It was detectives from the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office. They wanted to ask him some questions at the office.

Right around the time Thibodeaux arrived at the sheriff’s, a family friend named John Tomlinson found Crystal. She was dead, her body in some brush by a bridge on a bank of the Mississippi. A red wire was wrapped around her neck, her skull was fractured, and one of her front teeth had been knocked out.

When word came back to the sheriff’s about Crystal’s death, Thibodeaux felt something shift in the air. The detectives, who’d been civil and professional to that point, turned hostile. “Where were you the night Crystal disappeared?” they asked. “What were you doing that night? Did you rape her? Did you kill her?”

“No,” he said, and they called him a liar and started all over again. Hours passed as the pressure mounted. The detectives tried to bait Thibodeaux, claiming his cousins denied he was ever at their apartment the night Crystal disappeared. Thibodeaux thought he’d asphyxiate when he heard that.

The cops described the pain he’d feel when his body succumbed to lethal injection to pay for what he did.

His brain felt like it was melting.

Then came the final blow: they strapped Thibodeaux to a lie detector test, threw question after question at him, and then announced he’d failed the test.

With that, Thibodeaux passed out. “That’s the point where I realized I was never gonna walk out of here,” he would say years later.

By 4 a.m., the interrogation had seeped into its ninth hour and Thibodeaux’s endurance ran out. Delirious with fear, exhaustion, and hunger, he confessed to killing Crystal. “At that point I was tired,” he would later tell a reporter during an interview. “I was hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I was willing to tell them anything they wanted me to tell them if it would get me out of that interrogation room.”

He spewed out a confession that was just a regurgitation of what detectives had fed him: he’d taken Crystal under the bridge. She wanted sex and Thibodeaux was happy to oblige, but when he got too rough and Crystal begged him to stop, he punched and choked her, and eventually strangled her to death with a wire from his car speaker.

“I didn’t know that I had done it, but I done it,” he told his interrogators.

Signed confession in hand, the detectives charged Thibodeaux with murder. A few hours later, when he came to his senses, he recanted everything. But the sheriff’s department wasn’t handing back its prize, not even after investigators quickly unearthed details so contradictory to Thibodeaux’s confession that he ought to have been sent home that very day—with an apology and a fruit basket to boot.

The wire around Crystal’s neck was a red electrical conductor wire, not the speaker wire from Thibodeaux’s car that he confessed to killing her with. And, contrary to what the detectives had told Thibodeaux, Crystal’s mother Dawn told police he was in her apartment when her daughter had gone to the grocery store. (At his trial, Dawn changed her story and testified that he was not in her apartment after all. Years later, she claimed she couldn’t remember whether he was there or not.)

As he waited in jail, new holes kept forming in his confession. The autopsy revealed that Crystal had been hit in the face with a blunt object, not Thibodeaux’s fist as he’d claimed. And the forensic examiner found that she had not had sex for at least twenty-four hours before she died.

No sex, no punch to the face, no speaker wire. Yet at trial, the state found creative ways to plug up those holes. In one wild instance, an expert witness explained that the lack of evidence of sex could be attributed to maggots that ate up any traces of Thibodeaux’s semen.

Meanwhile, prosecutors painted Thibodeaux as a troubled young man from a broken home. Just the kind of damaged screwup who would not only defile a fourteen-year-old sexually, but would kill her in cold blood. They also brought in two witnesses who had identified Thibodeaux in the photo lineup as a man they’d seen standing nervously near the murder scene.

Thibodeaux’s attorney, meanwhile, put up an uninspired defense that inexplicably failed to explain to jurors that the confession, the key piece of evidence, had been false. Thibodeaux learned later on that the attorney, a former detective, had never defended a murder case before. What’s more, he was applying for a job in the District Attorney’s office at the time of the trial.

Nevertheless, Thibodeaux was confident that the jury would acquit and this nightmare would end. But on October 3, 1997, after a mere forty-five minutes of deliberations, the jury filed into the courtroom and the foreman read the verdict: “Guilty.”

“I was flabbergasted,” Thibodeaux says. “I was like, ‘Weren’t you people paying attention?’ Even now it shocks me that people were so inattentive at my trial.”

The next day, the jury recommended he be sentenced to death. The New Orleans Times Picayune story from that day was headlined, “Rapist, Killer Gets Death; Man Murdered Teen Stepcousin.” It quoted Crystal’s father Clifton as saying he was “glad” for Thibodeaux’s death sentence, “He deserved it. He beat my daughter so bad in the face, it’s unreal.”

Thibodeaux sat in the Jefferson Parish county jail for three weeks, awaiting final word on whether the judge would accept the jury’s recommendation—but he was pretty much resigned to the inevitable. “It wasn’t so much, Oh my God, I’m gonna die! as How am I going to survive this?” he recalls thinking. “I knew I had my appeals, but my question was what’s this going to be like if the justice system failed in such a terrible way? I just had a jury completely ignore the case. How am I going to prove to someone else that I didn’t do it when these people who weren’t paying attention think that I did?”

Thibodeaux was brought back to court on a Friday for sentencing. Judge Patrick McCabe asked him to stand. Then he sentenced him to death—on grounds that society could not tolerate murderers of children.

“It’s kind of a surreal moment,” Thibodeaux says. “You watch helplessly as your life’s ripped away from you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Looking back all these years later, he still can’t believe that the prosecutors, those dignified servants of the state, had played the court like frat boys playing foosball. “You assume that professionals, people who have gone to law school and trained to do this, wouldn’t just blatantly rip someone’s life apart just because they want to win,” he says.

That night, a deputy sheriff put Thibodeaux in a squad car and set out for Louisiana State Penitentiary—a two-and-a-half-hour drive. The sky was clear, and Thibodeaux watched the stars the entire ride. “All I could think about was am I going to see the stars again? I could have thought about a hundred other things, like my life, and why I had ended up here. But all I could think about was the night sky.”

*****

Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed “Angola” after the town it’s in, sits at the end of State Highway 66. It spans twenty-eight square miles, large enough to fit five Louisiana State University campuses. Bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, there is nowhere to run but out the front gate.

There’s an odd beauty to the grassy, well-kept grounds, which include a golf course for employees and a ten-thousand-seat stadium built for the biannual Angola Rodeo, an event that attracts multitudes. There’s a farm on the property, too. Angola opened in 1901 on land that had once been home to four slave plantations. The symbolism of that bit of history is not lost on the prisoners who work those fields today. They call it “the Last Slave Plantation.”

Death row inmates are exempt from such grueling work—or from doing any work at all. For twenty-three hours a day they are locked up with no human contact. They get one hour a day outside the cell, which they use to take a shower, make a phone call, or walk up and down the tier. “You have no life. You just exist,” Thibodeaux says. “Death row is solitary confinement, completely. Every time you see someone, there’s always a set of bars between you and them.”

It took two and a half years before Thibodeaux met his appeals lawyer, and during that time he slept and watched TV and did nothing else. If he remembers a single one of those nine-hundred-some-odd days, he remembers them all. “Television was the only way I could deal with the excessive boredom. There was nothing to do.”

The TVs hung from the wall across from the cells, one to every four inmates. Thibodeaux favored sci-fi shows like Babylon 5 and Doctor Who. But he was particularly into Star Trek in all its incarnations: Voyager, Enterprise, Deep Space Nine, The Next Generation, and the classic 1960s episodes that aired in the morning.

Thibodeaux would have to coordinate with his neighbors to work out a TV schedule. Some liked to watch sports all the time. Others liked to watch game shows or soap operas or reality shows. If you had a station that aired your show twice a day, you might let another inmate watch his show and you’d watch yours later.

Sometimes this didn’t work out and guys would get angry and curse at each other. Sometimes they’d get so mad they’d fling their own shit at each other. “When something like that happened, the guards were not nice,” Thibodeaux says. “They had to send an inmate orderly down to clean up the mess. They cracked down pretty hard on people who did stuff like that.”

To be fair, Thibodeaux did a few things besides sleeping and watching TV. He’d clean his six-by-nine-foot cell twice a day, wiping down the jail bars, the sink and toilet, straightening out his little desk, and making his bed. Officers didn’t like messy cells, and if they found a mess they’d take your stuff. Thibodeaux didn’t have much to take. His footlocker held a toothbrush, three pairs of jeans, three or four sweatshirts, T-shirts, boxers, and socks. In time, a pile of legal work would start to form off to the side and eventually grow to some two-thousand pages.

During his daily hour outside the cell, he’d pace back and forth on the tier. He smoked too much and his slender frame grew flabby from the high-fat, high-sodium prison food. It was always rice-and-gravy-based grub: boiled hamburger patties in gravy, cooked turkey in gravy, beef in gravy, chicken in gravy. The one saving grace was the availability of greens grown on the farm.

Every now and then a fight would break out on the tiers—at least they called them fights. The bars separating inmates only allowed for lightning-quick, single-strike attacks. “I’ve seen guys boil stuff in the microwave and throw it on other guys,” Thibodeaux says. “I’ve seen guys standing by the bars and someone walked by and cut them with something. You probably can’t kill someone on death row, but you can do some harm to him.”

After an attack, the administration would rotate inmates to new cells. Thibodeaux always prayed to God that he would be given a cell with a fan in front of it. “The temperatures were astronomical,” he says. “We would sometimes strip down to our boxers and sleep on the floor, which was not a whole lot cooler, maybe two or three degrees, but preferable.

“The mattress was some type of fire retardant foam-type stuff wrapped in plastic. You can imagine how hot that was, how sticky it would get. Every night I would wake up in a pool of sweat because it was so hot. The mattress would be soaked.”

In the summertime, Thibodeaux only got about an hour’s sleep each night. He’d baste  like a slow-roasting turkey as he listened to the radio and stared out the window. The heat problem was so bad that eventually, in 2013, three death row inmates sued the penitentiary and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for the excessive heat, alleging that in one year, temperatures reached 195 degrees.

Monday through Saturday, Thibodeaux’s life was about being drenched in sweat and nearly comatose with depression.

Sunday was that too, plus something far worse. On Sundays, Angola let the tourists in to death row—moms and dads and gaping-eyed kids who’d come to stare at this morbidly fascinating bunch of Hannibal Lecters.

Before the tour began corrections officers would instruct visitors on safety measures, “Each and every inmate here is on death row for murder and is considered highly dangerous. For your safety, do not walk close to the bars.” The inmates were ordered in advance to keep their mouths shut as the families asked the tour guides questions like, “What’s this one in for? Why are they allowed to wear regular clothes? Shouldn’t they be in jumpsuits?”

“I’d see fear and hatred in their eyes and I couldn’t say anything,” Thibodeaux recalls.

“We’re not monkeys in a zoo. We’re human beings. I get it if they’re bringing law students down to the tiers to meet their future clients, or schoolkids, ‘Hey, look, this is what happens if you kill somebody.’ But the idea of tours to the general public for profit? It’s beyond sick.”

When the tourists came, Thibodeaux tried to make like a tiger at the zoo and just ignore them.

But it was impossible.

*****

Early on in his sentence, Thibodeaux had listlessly filed his appeals, not because he thought it would help but because that’s what inmates do. But two and a half years into prison, he made a resolution that he was ready to die. “I decided being on death row was a fate worse than death,” he says. “There were guys around me who’d been on death row for twenty, twenty-five years. I didn’t want to be one of them. I didn’t want to be old and decrepit inside a cell because of something I didn’t do.”

In 1998, as he contemplated dropping his appeals, he got a visit from a lawyer named Denise LeBouef, who worked with the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana. “She walked in there and convinced me that she didn’t think I did it, and she wanted the opportunity to prove it,” Thibodeaux says. “I told her I wasn’t trusting of lawyers and she understood that.”

Thibodeaux had little hope LeBouef would rescue him. But with nothing to lose, he became her client and saved himself from what would have effectively been suicide-by-passivity. That day marked the start of his slow ascent from rock bottom. The climb would take more than a decade.

Thibodeaux gets asked all the time how he did all those years in solitary confinement without going crazy. “I really have no answer,” he says. “Call it a blessing. Call it a gift. Call it a fortunate eyes-open view of life.”

Well, reading the Bible was a big part of it. He read it cover to cover four times, and still reads it today. “There are people all the time who tell me, ‘There’s no way I could have gone through what you went through.’ But I would look at people like Job and David and the apostles and think there’s no way I could possibly have gone through what they went through. That was a big help for me.”

And knowing that good lawyers were working for him was paramount. After LeBouef signed on, so did Steve Kaplan from the Minneapolis civil law firm Fredrickson & Byron. “Their attitude was we know you’re innocent and we’re going to do our best to prove it,” Thibodeaux says.

But more than anything, he stayed sane by adhering to a strict daily routine.

“I survived by repetition. Sometimes you get so bored, you don’t know if you’re going to lose your mind or not. So you just fall into your monotonous grind and let it envelop you.”

A typical day started with brewing coffee using two quart-sized containers and a handkerchief as a filter. Then he’d get dressed, wash his face, brush his teeth, eat breakfast, and read his Bible. He’d wipe down his cell, make the bed, fold the laundry, go through some court papers, read the Baton Rouge Advocate, watch CNN, eat lunch, listen to some blues or country music on the radio, read a few chapters of a book (usually science fiction), do some push-ups, squats, jumping jacks, and sit ups (“anything to get you sweating and your pulse up”), take a shower, call his lawyers, have dinner, read some more, watch TV, do some more reading, get ready for bed, go to sleep.

Day after day after day.

The enemy was idleness—gaps in time when demons could get into his head. So he performed his tasks with a marine’s determination. Some days, he used his hour outside the cell to run three miles up and down the tier. When the weather was good, he and other inmates would go outside into individual pens equipped with basketball hoops. They’d play a game where one at a time they’d shoot a basket. The first inmate who missed would have to do ten push-ups for every basket that was made before he missed.

Sometimes Thibodeaux made necklaces using silver and stone beads that he bought from a catalog. The beadwork was hypnotizing. “It gave me a way to just clear my mind and think about nothing but sticking the thread through the next bead, sticking the thread through the next bead, the next bead, the next bead.”

*****
Thibodeaux formed bonds with the men he shared the tier with. It did not matter to him who was innocent and who was guilty; everyone was in for murder, and all bore the same misfortune of having been convicted in a death penalty state. “It’s crazy when you think about it,” he says. “You have prisons where serial murderers get to serve life sentences and be with the rest of the population because they happen to be in a state that doesn’t have the death sentence.”

Death row inmates had an unspoken rule never to discuss their final destination. “We all knew why we were there. You just don’t walk up to someone and ask, ‘What do you think it will feel like when they stick the needle in you?’” When an inmate’s time came, the others would watch silently as two officers escorted him down the tier in chains, never to return. They would never speak of it afterward.

Thibodeaux remembers Dobie Gillis Williams, who was thirty-eight when he died of lethal injection on January 8, 1999. He had been convicted fifteen years earlier of stabbing a woman named Sonja Knippers to death. “I was in the hallway at the time and he walked by with corrections officers, in chains and a jumpsuit, and he was gone,” Thibodeaux says.

He did not mourn. “It’s not an I can’t believe he’s gone type of thing,” Thibodeaux says. “Everybody there is under the assumption that he and his neighbor is next in line.”

Nor did Thibodeaux mourn the execution of Leslie Dale Martin, who was convicted of raping and murdering college student Christina Burgin in 1991. Martin took his final walk on May 10, 2002. He was thirty-five. “He was a down-to-earth guy,” Thibodeaux says. “He was always either reading or typing on his typewriter. I was sorry to see him go. I valued him as a friend.”

“I don’t know if he did it or not,” he adds. “That’s between him and his maker.”

*****

Anyway, mulling over death is a waste of time when you’re busy fighting for your life. Thibodeaux called his lawyers at least twice a week, and did legal research every day. Death row inmates did not have access to the law library, so they would put in requests to inmate counsels every morning for certain documents, and those requests would go to the law library officers.

The system was a pain in the ass.

“If they didn’t think something you requested pertained to your case, then you wouldn’t get it,” Thibodeaux says. “Or, you’d get it, but it would be the wrong document. You wanted DNA stuff? They’d pick the first DNA case they came across, which was usually nothing more than a simple rape case. Well, that did me no good because mine was a murder case.

“The law says we’re supposed to have access to the law library and we don’t have access to the law library. If your request is governed by an administration whose job it is to kill you, they’re not going to try to help you. They’re going to try to put a roadblock in your path.”

For a wrongful imprisonment case like Thibodeaux’s that had so much proof of innocence, it took a prohibitively long time to get the proof through the right channels. Even after Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick joined forces with defense lawyers in 2007 to test the DNA evidence from the crime scene, it took another five years before Thibodeaux was finally released.

Despite the growing light at the end of the tunnel, those were not happy years. “You can’t be happy on death row,” Thibodeaux says. “To say someone is happy on death row is to say they’re comfortable being there.

“I was sitting there day after day, waiting for them to just open the door and let me go. But the DA tested one piece of evidence at a time. I’m sure it would have been easier if he just sent everything together to the lab, but he’s in control.

“So you keep your hope high but in the back of your mind you think maybe the DA is going to be a pain in the ass and say, ‘No,’ and you have to fight anyway. So I just kept joy in a bottle until I signed the log at the front gate at the prison in the parking lot.”

The anticipation threw off Thibodeaux’s rigid daily routine that had kept his delicate psyche at bay for all those years. “Everything that I put in place to help deal with the day-to-day issues of sitting in a cell all day become scrambled. I was trying to keep my repetitious mindset going, because if I let it deviate from my daily plan, things got thrown out of whack.”

Not even the Bible comforted him. “What if my case falls through?” he’d suddenly ask himself in the middle of reading a verse. “Or if it doesn’t fall through and I have to face the real world alone?” That last question gave Thibodeaux particular agita. It was becoming clear, as one DNA test after the next came back negative, that it stopped being an if and was now a when.

“What the hell am I going to do?” he asked his lawyer Steve Kaplan one day. “I have no job, no job history, no car. I’m going to have to pay rent, buy clothes, pay taxes. I have to learn to socialize with people again. Being in a cell for fifteen years, you’re stripped of all that.”

To take his client’s mind off things, Kaplan sent him CDs and books—science fiction and historical works like an FDR biography and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Abraham Lincoln book, Team of Rivals. And he and Thibodeaux would discuss what he read.

The waiting went on and on as his lawyers slowly gathered evidence proving his innocence. They reached out to the two witnesses who’d claimed to see someone who looked like Thibodeaux standing near the murder scene. The witnesses now added a crucial detail to their story: they saw police tape at the scene. This meant they were there the night searchers found Crystal’s body, not the night she was killed. And they had picked Thibodeaux out of a photo lineup only after seeing his image plastered all over TV. In short, they witnessed nothing of consequence.

The lawyers met with state pathologist Dr. Fraser MacKenzie, who had testified at Thibodeaux’s trial. Now, MacKenzie heard for the first time that the details in Thibodeaux’s confession did not match the physical evidence—namely, that here was no evidence of a rape. MacKenzie signed an affidavit for the attorneys pointing out the disparities in the confession.

MacKenzie also determined that Crystal died about two and a half hours after she left her home. Calculating the time Thibodeaux left the Champagnes’ and the distance to the murder scene, it would have been virtually impossible for him to have enough time to commit the murder.

Most importantly, the DNA tests—which alone had taken two years—did not connect Thibodeaux to the crime.

*****

On September 28, 2012, Judge Patrick McCabe, who’d presided over the original trial in 1997, ordered Thibodeaux be set free. He became the three-hundredth inmate freed by DNA evidence. That morning after breakfast, a lieutenant told Thibodeaux, “Pack your stuff, you’re going home.”

“I’m already packed,” he replied.

But first there was one order of business that required Thibodeaux to don a jumpsuit and shackles one last time: a quick medical checkup. Until he walked out the door he was the property of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. When that was done, he changed back into a pair of blue jeans and a white T-shirt.

He picked up his bag and walked out of his cell and down the tier, unchained. He did not glance back.

“So long!” inmates called out. “Don’t forget to be a voice for us.”

At the front gate, Thibodeaux signed his name on a form. “No offense,” he told the guards, “but I hope I never see you guys again.”4

Then it was Thibodeaux and the open sky, reunited.

“It was kind of surreal,” he says. “Here I am, looking at the sky not just as free man, but one without chains on. It was almost euphoric; you know that feeling when you make a last payment on a car, or on anything that belongs to you that you paid for in installments? Multiply that a thousand times.”

Steve Kaplan was waiting outside in a rental car. They set out on a three-day drive to Minnesota—Kaplan’s home state—where Thibodeaux had decided to live because of the help the state gives exonerees. During the drive, Thibodeaux rolled down the window and stared for hours at the passing trees with leaves that were starting to turn brilliant reds and oranges. The air smelled wonderful.

That first night, they stayed at a hotel where Thibodeaux ordered a sirloin steak, well done, with asparagus and mashed potatoes. He ate it slowly, like he was tasting food for the first time. “It was probably the best meal ever,” he says.

*****

For the next five weeks, Thibodeaux stayed with Kaplan and his wife in Minneapolis. He nearly panicked in his eagerness to catch up on everything. “I wanted my car, I wanted my apartment, my job, I wanted it all at the same time,” he says. “I had missed not having it for so long, here it was within my reach and I just thought, maybe I could fill that hole. I discovered I can’t, no matter what I do.”

Kaplan and his wife Pam told Thibodeaux to slow down and just enjoy having his life back. Sometimes he would just ride his bike to a lake and try to enjoy not being behind bars.

Then he’d get back to learning how to be a civilian. He practiced being around people again by taking walks through the Mall of America in Minneapolis and starting up conversations with strangers. He got a job doing clerical work in Kaplan’s law office, and moved into his own apartment, provided by a St. Paul-based nonprofit called the Project for Pride in Living. He enrolled in a GED program and started taking computer classes. “Things had changed so much,” he says. “We were using fax machines when I went to prison. The conveniences everyone has today weren’t even a thought back then.”

In prison, the beauty of Thibodeaux’s daily routine was that there was no room for deviation. On the outside, there were so many kinds of routines, the choices were endless. “I didn’t have to just get up, go to work, come home go to sleep. I could go out, have a beer with dinner, call some friends, go watch a movie, go for a drive. It’s a bit of a task going from not just having life but actually living it.”

*****

For fifteen years, the only physical contact Thibodeaux had with another human being was the rare shaking of an inmate’s hand. Even after deprivation dulled his sex drive, he still felt pangs sometimes for just a hug.

In May 2013, Thibodeaux went to a conference for exonerees in Georgia. He met a woman there named Veronica, who worked as an intern with the Witness to Innocence nonprofit in Philadelphia. A month later, they started dating. “With Veronica, when I get a hug or kiss I don’t get enough of it. I just want to soak it up, to savor the contact.” The couple plans to move to Austin in 2015 and get married.

Veronica, he is certain, is the one.

“She’s intelligent; she’s independent; she’s kind, beautiful. We share this comfortableness. We can sit next to each other in the same room, not say anything to each other all day long and be perfectly happy with each other. Or we can have extended conversations about nothing and still be happy with each other.”

*****
Thibodeaux is waiting on a wrongful imprisonment suit against the state of Louisiana, but knows a payout is cold comfort. “They can’t begin to replace what they took from me. It doesn’t matter how big the judgment is in the lawsuit. They can give me the world and still not match what they took.”

Of all the things they took, perhaps the most crucial was the chance to be with his son.When Thibodeaux was seventeen, he became a father. And when Baby Josh was just a few months old, Thibodeaux broke up with his girlfriend and lost contact with the boy.

Josh was fourteen and living in Alabama when he got a letter that nearly knocked him over. It was from his father. Thibodeaux introduced himself and said he’d fill in any blanks that Josh wanted filled.

The boy wrote back, telling Thibodeaux about his life, what he liked doing—hanging out with friends, playing basketball and football. A lively letter correspondence started. Thibodeaux drew the line at having his son visit him in prison. “I didn’t want him to see me in chains for the first time. I didn’t want our first meeting to be like that.”

They finally met when Thibodeaux was free. “It was overwhelming. Here’s my son, who I haven’t seen since he was six months old, and now he’s a grown man.
“And now he’s a father, too.”

*****

Things are going pretty well for Damon Thibodeaux. He has a son and a girlfriend and a job he loves. He’s grateful to the lawyers who set him free, and he’s grateful for people like Bill Collins, from Interstate Truck Driving, who put him through truck driving school. “We exonerees have to eat, we have to pay bills, we have to pay taxes. We’re just like everybody else now. And they don’t make it easy for us to do that. It saddens me to see a lot of the guys who have been exonerated aren’t as lucky as me.”

Thibodeaux couldn’t be happier hauling freight from one end of the country to the other. He knows what a daily grind feels like, and this is no grind. Because what always made him happy was a good view, and there’s no better view than through the windshield of a big rig.

He chuckles at the irony of spending most of his hours as a free man inside an enclosure that’s the size of a death row prison cell.

“This may be the size of a prison cell,” he says. “But there’s no bars in front of me. I can get out of the truck and go for a walk whenever I want.

“It’s not confinement, and that makes all the difference in the world.”

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