In 1997, a 23-year-old Damon Thibodeaux was sentenced to death after being convicted of raping and murdering his teenage step-cousin. Unfortunately, Damon was innocent of these crimes and had been railroaded based on eyewitness misidentification and a false, coerced confession. No physical evidence actually linked him to the crime.
Thibodeaux spent a decade rotting on death row before his case was reinvestigated. This time, with the help of the Innocence Project, holes were poked in the eyewitness testimonies and confession, and DNA testing of evidence—not used during the initial trial—showed that not only was it not Thibodeaux's blood on the murder weapon, but also that no sexual assault had occurred. In 2012, after 16 years of incarceration, Thibodeaux's was released from prison with his conviction overturned.
VICE asked Thibodeaux about his life-changing ordeal and he was kind enough to dredge up the past and answer the questions you've always had for someone wrongfully convicted.
VICE: Did anyone surprise and/or hurt you by doubting your innocence? How did that affect your relationship with them?
Damon Thibodeaux: Everyone was very supportive and that gave me strength. There was a time, though, when I wanted to give up on my appeals and have the sentence carried out because I didn't want to live like an animal in cage and, at the time, I didn't see any way of proving that I did not commit this crime.
Were there ever moments where you doubted your own innocence?
There was never a moment when I doubted my innocence. I knew that I did not do it. People who knew me and still know me had no doubts about it either.
Were you ever absolutely certain you were going to be executed for this crime you didn't commit and, if so, how did that change you?
I did think that I would be executed at one time. I never thought in my life that I would be in prison for something that I did not do, let alone on death row for it. Like I said, I even wanted to give up my appeals. It changed me in a way where I came face to face with my own mortality and the fact that at the time I thought that I was going to be executed for something that I did not do.
How did the entire rollercoaster of events effect or change your religiosity or thoughts about a higher power, if at all?
I do believe in God. Being on death row changes you spiritually. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, you become more aware that someone or something else is in control and not you.
What was the usual response inside the prison to you professing your innocence? Did any inmates or staff believe you? Did you believe any of your fellow inmates were also wrongfully convicted?
I do believe that there are others on death row and in prison for crimes that they did not commit. You hear stories about this person or that person being innocent but you don't dig into someone else's case just to make your own judgement. I have had a guard or two tell me that I did not belong there, nor did I fit in.
How did the other inmates treat you when the innocence project got on board and it seemed like there might be a chance of your sentence being overturned?
When the Innocence Project took my case I thought it was just routine. Another case to be handled. As time went on and their investigation got deeper I started thinking that I just might get my freedom back. The other inmates were supportive when they heard the Innocence Project was involved in my case. Obviously, though, they would all like to have that level of representation.
Were there any positives you were able to take away from such an awful experience and/or your time in prison?
The only positive that you can take from an experience like this is that it makes you stronger. It reinforces the fact that you do not have complete control of your life and that you can lose your life and freedom at any time, even though you are innocent.
What are your feelings about the death penalty as a form of punishment now? If you're fundamentally against it, is there any individual out there, prisoner or not, that you think deserves it?
There was a time when I would have supported the death penalty for certain crimes. But being on death row for 15 years for something that I did not do made me see that we cannot administer this form of punishment fairly or safely. I also don't think that we should have the power or authority to so easily take another person's life. In today's society, we have the means and the ability to punish criminals without killing them. When vengeance takes control, justice can no longer be served. I think people make bad choices in life—some worse than others— but how we react to those situations is a testament to who we are as a society.
How has the government compensated you for their mistake and stealing years of your life?
I have not been compensated. I don't know if they ever will compensate me. They certainly can not give back what they have taken from me. The government is slow to correct their own mistakes and make reparations to those that they hurt, but quick to punish someone before they have all the facts.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when re-acclimating to normal life and what do you feel like you missed out on by being incarcerated for that period of your life?
When I was finally exonerated and released, the biggest things I had to face was being social with other people because on death row there is no contact with anyone. Being in a relationship with a partner was an everyday challenge because you have to close yourself off emotionally. It's not easy having relationships with people after having to close yourself up like that to survive. I missed out on a lot of things in that time. I missed my son growing up, the birth and passing of family members, and not being a part of their lives. I missed the best earning potential of life. I will not be able to retire when I get old. If there is no compensation, then I will have to work the rest of my life.