This month’s featured exoneree is one I met close to eighteen months ago. He’s my son, Jared’s age and was released from prison on my birthday in 2012. That day is now referred to as his day of “rebirth” so for both of us it holds plenty of meaning. I cannot help but contemplate how vastly different our reasons are for its significance but I am overjoyed to share this special day with such an admirable friend.
Jared Manninen with exoneree Damon Thibodeaux and his girlfriend Veronika
Damon Thibodeaux is the 300th person nationwide and the 18th from death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence. He spent 15 years on death row in Angola Prison in Louisiana for the rape and murder of a family member. He was under lockdown for 23 hours a day in a cell that measured roughly 6×9 feet at one of the toughest maximum security prisons in the United States. Damon’s story is extremely tragic and the circumstances leading to his incarceration are similar to those found in many wrongful convictions.
After being subjected to nine hours of questioning, Damon admitted he had raped and murdered the victim, even though he had not. It was later determined that the confession was the result of police pressure, exhaustion, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty. Even so, the case against him had been built around that confession despite the discrepancies within his statement and the lack of physical evidence to prove the victim had even been raped.
Damon was also misidentified. A week after the crime, two women identified him in a photo line up as the man they saw pacing and acting nervously on the evening of the murder. They then pointed him out during the trial as the man they had seen. But when Damon’s case was later reinvestigated, it was revealed that the women had seen Damon’s photo in the news before police showed them the photo line-up and the date of the sighting turned out to be the day after the body was found when Damon was already in custody.
Damon shows no anger about his false imprisonment. During a news conference Damon stated that, “Being angry would be a waste of time because…I can’t get the sixteen years back. I have to keep focused on where I want to go and hope I can figure out along the way what I want to do. I can’t think about what could have been, but will be.”
My husband Mike and I have hosted Damon in our home many times along with other exonerees. Being around them inspires us to be thankful for the freedoms we have. Despite the horrors that Damon endured, we know him as someone who is genuinely kind and compassionate. Right after he was freed he was quiet and reserved. Now he has learned to live, love and laugh again. Sometimes when I see or think of him, I say a silent prayer of thanks; both for his good fortune and because what happened to him could have easily happened to Jared, given similar circumstances. I was excited when Jared and Damon had the opportunity to get to know each other late last year. What a priceless experience for any mother on her birthday…or any other day.
**Damon was one of a handfull of guests Mike and I hosted the evening his story was featured on the Saturday, March 29, 2014 segment of 48 Hours on CBS.