Damon Thibodeaux was trying to make the most of the time he had lost after being exonerated from death row, where he had spent 15 years of his life in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit.
After he was freed from a Louisiana prison in 2012, Thibodeaux earned his GED, began rebuilding his relationships with friends and families, drove around the country as a long-haul trucker, and became a vocal advocate against wrongful convictions.
Less than 10 years after his exoneration, Thibodeaux died of COVID-19 on Aug. 31, according to the Innocence Project. He was 47.
"It's just an absolutely tragedy that someone was wrongfully put on death row for so long, and [it took] so much resilience and so much effort on so many people's parts to get him off death row... it's just such a tragedy that he's taken from us before his time," Will Francome, who featured Thibodeaux in his 2017 documentary film The Penalty, told BuzzFeed News on Monday.
Thibodeaux was 22 and working as a deckhand on a Mississippi barge in 1996 when he was arrested for the rape and murder of his step-cousin, Crystal Champagne. Her body was found with a piece of red extension cord wrapped around her neck, according to the Innocence Project.
Thibodeaux initially became a suspect because of his familial relationship with Champagne, but denied any involvement in the crime. He agreed to take a polygraph test, but was informed that he had failed it.
After a nine-hour interrogation — of which only 54 minutes were recorded — Thibodeaux gave a confession to authorities, saying, "I didn't know that I had done it, but I done it," according to his obituary in the Times-Picayune.
Despite his confession being inconsistent with many details of the crime and without any physical evidence linking him to the murder, Thibodeaux was convicted and sentenced to death in Louisiana.
In 2007, a joint investigation by the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office and the Innocence Project concluded that "Thibodeaux's confession was false in every significant aspect."
Forensic experts said there was no physical evidence tying him to the murder, and that contrary to his statement, the victim had not been sexually assaulted. The DNA evidence found on the cord did not belong to Thibodeaux and eyewitness accounts identifying him at the scene of the crime were proven to be wrong.
The investigation also found that before his trial, the prosecution's own expert had concluded that Thibodeaux had falsely confessed based on fear of the death penalty, but this information was never shared with the defense.
The district attorney overturned Thibodeaux's conviction and death sentence and he was released from the Angola prison in Louisiana on Sept. 28, 2012.
He moved to Minnesota after his release and "embraced his new life free from bars, chains, and constant surveillance," according to his obituary.
"The best part of my day no matter how good the rest of my day is, is when I wake up every morning and I don't see those bars," Thibodeaux told KARE 11 in a 2013 interview.
"Damon was always someone who was trying to make the most of his time since getting out of prison... and trying to make up for lost time," Francome told BuzzFeed News.
As he drove around the country, Thibodeaux was always excited about trying the local food and having new experiences in different places, Francome said.
Thibodeaux died without receiving any compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction. A claim for compensation was pending at the time of his death.
Despite the financial hardships and the emotional struggles that death row exonerees face, Francome described Thibodeaux as always being positive and happy with his life.
Even though he had some anger about what had happened to him, he didn't let it rule his life, Francome said.
"You can't go through something like this and not be angry," Thibodeaux told KARE 11 in 2013. "It's what you do with it that defines you."
But even as tried to rebuild his new life, "the horrors of incarceration haunted him," according to his obituary.
"He suffered nightmares that returned him to the harrowing experience of his solitary confinement in a small single cell and the crushing despair, loneliness, and hopelessness," the obituary states, but his spirituality and belief in God "helped him survive his ordeal."
As a member of the Witness to Innocence community, Thibodeaux traveled across the country to talk about wrongful convictions and share his experiences with religious groups, business leaders, lawyers, judges, and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In a tribute, the Witness to Innocence said that many of its members had spoken to him in recent weeks, "so this had come as a terrible shock and a sudden loss for all of us who knew and loved him."
The organization described him as a wonderful person who was "beloved by everyone."
He is survived by his mother, Cynthia Thibodeaux; his two sisters, Vickie Chauvin and Alice Hensen; his brother, David Thibodeaux; his son, Joshua Thibodeaux; and his grandchildren.
"We often see the death penalty as a public health crisis," Francome said. "And I feel like he’s someone who was caught up in two big American stories in some way."