For more than 25 years, Fredrikson & Byron has been representing men on death row in Louisiana. Shortly after its first death row client was executed in 1999, the firm stepped up to take the case of Damon Thibodeaux and more recently, the case of Michael Wearry, both of whom claim innocence of the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to death.
Thibodeaux, age 38, was released on Friday, Sept. 28 by a Jefferson Parish, Louisiana Court. He has been on death row in Louisiana since 1997 for allegedly murdering and raping his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne. His conviction and sentence were set aside because the evidence overwhelmingly proved that he was completely innocent and had falsely confessed. He intends to relocate to Minneapolis and live and work.
Fredrikson & Byron President John Koneck says, “Our work on Damon’s case over the past 12 years is part of our continuing commitment to representing Louisiana death row inmates since the 1980s.”
“Fredrikson attorneys and its pro bono program were instrumental in gaining Damon’s freedom,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City.
Thibodeaux said his legal team also was responsible for keeping up his spirits during the 15 years of solitary confinement he endured. “I’m grateful for their continued confidence in my innocence, and I will do whatever I can to reward their confidence by building a meaningful life for myself.”
Thibodeaux’s legal team included Denise LeBoeuf and Caroline Tillman of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, and Steve Kaplan and Richard Kyle of Fredrikson & Byron. LeBoeuf is currently director of the ACLU’s Death Penalty Project, and Tillman is now an attorney with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans.
Over the course of the past dozen years, more than 70 Fredrikson & Byron members, including lawyers and staff, have contributed to this effort. Thibodeaux’s freedom came in large part from DNA evidence demonstrating that he was not the murderer and that the victim, contrary to Thibodeaux’s apparent confession, had not been raped, and had also not been murdered in the manner that he had described in his apparent confession.
“This is a tragic illustration of why law enforcement must record the entire interrogation of any witness or potential suspect in any investigation involving a serious crime,” said Kaplan. “When juries learn that the accused has apparently confessed, they invariably have a difficult time questioning the reliability and truthfulness of the confession—unless they can see the entire interrogation and determine whether it’s truthful and reliable in light of all of the evidence and the interrogation methods used in obtaining the confession.”
Added Pam Wandzel, Fredrikson & Byron’s pro bono program manager, “Our firm has had the unique privilege of working with Damon and this amazing team of lawyers and professionals for the past 12 years. Cases like Damon’s drive us to help those who can’t afford lawyers. We are all committed now to helping him begin his new life in the Twin Cities.”
Fredrikson & Byron was recognized last year by the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project, which was created in 1986 to help ensure fair trials and quality legal representation for every person facing a possible death sentence. According to leaders of the Death Penalty Representation Project, Fredrikson & Byron’s pro bono representation for people on death row has gone above and beyond the norm for many years. A team led by Tom Fraser, Clint Cutler, and John Koneck tirelessly represented Dobie Gillis Williams from 1987 through January 1999.
The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 18 who served time on death row. The Innocence Project’s mission is to free innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment. More information is available at www.innocenceproject.org.
Fredrikson & Byron is a 260-attorney law firm based in Minneapolis, with offices in Bismarck, Des Moines, Fargo, Monterrey, Mexico, and Shanghai, China. Fredrikson & Byron has a reputation as the firm “where law and business meet”. Attorneys bring business acumen and entrepreneurial thinking to work with clients, and operate as business advisors and strategic partners, as well as legal counselors. More information about the firm is available at www.fredlaw.com.
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