AG defends opposition to compensating ex-inmate

Saying it is justified in legally scrutinizing the case of an exonerated death row inmate now seeking restitution, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office has rejected accusations from the man’s attorneys that it regularly obstructs the efforts of freed inmates to be compensated for wrongful imprisonment.

Lawyers for the Attorney General’s Office made their arguments in court filings responding to those made this month by attorneys for Damon Thibodeaux, whose 1997 conviction for raping and murdering 14-year-old Crystal Champagne in Bridge City was tossed out after he spent 15 years in prison.

Thibodeaux was freed in 2012 after a joint investigation by the New York-based Innocence Project and the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office determined the confession upon which his conviction was largely based was false. It also found issues with eyewitness testimony in the case and conducted DNA tests of evidence found at the crime scene under the Huey P. Long Bridge in 1996.

State law entitles exonerated inmates to as much as $330,000 — $25,000 per year for up to 10 years, plus $80,000 for loss of life opportunities. Thibodeaux is seeking the full amount.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office told the 24th Judicial District Court in April that Thibodeaux’s attorneys must prove — not just assert — his innocence in court, subject to the rules of evidence and discovery. It also asked the court to determine whether the experts whose analysis exonerated Thibodeaux should be considered in making that determination.

In the latest filings, the attorney general rebuffed the notion put forth by Thibodeaux’s lawyers that the compensation process was intended to be a summary process, concerned only with weeding out inmates who were freed on legal technicalities.

The attorney general cited the law’s requirement that the petitioner must prove “that he is factually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.”

“The Legislature was clear that it did not want taxpayer dollars going to any petitioner, even if their conviction was overturned, unless the petitioner could show that they were innocent of any crime,” wrote assistant attorneys general Emma Devillier and Colin Clark. “Because Thibodeaux confessed to the murder herein and because there remains other evidence that implicates his involvement (though not beyond a reasonable doubt), the state must object to compensation.”

They also said a 2007 amendment to the law that moved the process from civil court to the court in which the case was originally decided indicates the Legislature considers the process to be criminal in nature.

Devillier and Clark said the case is still open.

“This is not a case where DNA evidence exonerates anyone by identifying the killer,” they wrote. “It is the state’s position that Damon Thibodeaux cannot be excluded as a suspect.”

Reached for comment Friday, Thibodeaux’s attorney, Herb Larson, said the investigation did include forensic testing. He said it found none of Thibodeaux’s DNA on the victim and someone else’s DNA on the wire used to strangle her.

He said experts consulted during the investigation said it would have been impossible for Thibodeaux to have committed the crime without getting some of his DNA on the victim.

The attorney general, however, is contesting the admissibility of the investigation’s analysis in several respects.

For example, on the issue of whether the rules of evidence should apply, the attorney general argues that only one of the 13 alleged experts who exonerated Thibodeaux testified in the trial, leaving the rest sheltered from many of the legal requirements and challenges they would have faced if they had appeared as witnesses.

But the attorney general also reiterated his broader contention that expert analysis on false confessions and eyewitness testimony is inadmissible, anyway — a crucial point of disagreement between the two sides that will ultimately be decided by the judge.

Lawyers for the attorney general also took issue with the contention by Thibodeaux’s attorneys that Caldwell’s office has been obstructionist in its dealings with inmates seeking compensation, calling that an unwarranted personal attack.

Devillier and Clark wrote that 25 of the 30 petitioners who have been processed have been granted compensation, and that three of the five cases the Attorney General’s Office took to the appellate level were decided in its favor.

A judge is expected to hear oral arguments in the matter next month and rule on compensation at a later date.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.