News from LifeLines

The 2019 Spring Conference

As ever, our LifeLines autumn conference in London was a very special day - an opportunity to meet old and new friends, to hear from some excellent and truly inspirational speakers, and to reflect on the importance and value of the correspondence we share with our friends on the row.


Our first speaker was Damon Thibodeaux, who spent fifteen years on Louisiana’s death row as an innocent man. He was convicted in 1997 and sent to Angola, where inmates are kept on lockdown 23 hours a day, in solitary confinement. Though Damon isn’t able to speak about the details of his case for legal reasons, he remembers it all – being arrested, interrogated, going through trial; watching as the prosecutor, judge, his lawyer and the jury made decisions on his life for something he didn’t do - as an unreal experience that nobody should have to deal with. He was tried and convicted, with the jury taking no more than 10 or 15 minutes to make their decision. Damon says that he’s often wondered if they even discussed the case.


Damon was brought to Angola about two weeks after the conviction, where they took all of his belongings, gave him a jumpsuit and put him in a cell. Hearing that door close, he says, was a kind of finality, the point where he realised this was not going to go well. For three years he simply existed; he says that he didn’t much want to live and he even got to the point where he was seriously considering dropping his appeals.


It was around this time that Damon started writing to individuals from LifeLines. He believes that the organisation and its members really do provide a lifeline, because they give people like himself a sense of humanity, and still see them as human beings whether they’re guilty or not. He also met Denise LeBoeuf, an attorney working for the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana. Damon describes his defence lawyer at his first trial as “less than stellar” - but Denise put together not only the best case that Damon had seen, but she also made it possible for other defence attorneys like Steve Kaplan and Barry Scheck to look at it and be moved by what they saw to take it further.


Inspired by Denise, and to survive the gruelling physical and mental torment of solitary confinement, Damon learned to create a routine for himself, to get him through the day without thinking about why he was there and what could happen. At 22 years old he had come face to face with his own mortality, which he believes isn’t something you should have to do when you’re just starting life. So he would wake up every morning, make coffee, read his bible, read his mail and newspaper, clean his cell, get his laundry ready, make his bed, get ready for the yard, go out, exercise as much as he could, come back, take a shower, watch TV, read some more and listen to some music. There was also interaction between himself and a lot of the other people on death row, but it was limited.


Damon would also talk to his lawyers two or three times a week, to keep track of what was going on. About ten years in, he learned that the district attorney wanted to have a meeting. His lawyers were completely opposed to it, but Damon agreed to hear what the DA had to say, and to everyone’s surprise he agreed to reinvestigate the case. Little did Damon know that it would still take another five years for him to be released.


Five years later he got a phone call one Friday afternoon around three o’clock, and they told him to pack his stuff because he was leaving. Damon’s bags had been packed for two years, so he was ready to go! The paperwork was faxed over, and Damon was given a jumpsuit and told he was going to the hospital for a check-up. When he arrived, the sergeant at the hospital asked why he wasn’t in street clothes, so they had to take him back to his cell to put clothes on and collect his things. He then had to wait half an hour for a ride, the first time he’d been out of the cell without a jumpsuit and chains on, and he remembers feeling very out of place.


When he finally left the prison, the walk was like a surreal out of body experience - he knew it was coming but he still wasn’t ready for it. He didn’t know what to say; there were reporters firing questions at him and it was like sensory overload. He found himself suddenly in a room with a lot of people after having been in a cell by himself for fifteen years, and in the back of his mind he was freaking out. That night Damon stayed in a hotel; his son was there, who he hadn’t seen since he was three, along with Damon’s mother, both his sisters and his brother. It was the first time in over 20 years they had been under the same roof together. When the hotel management found out who he was, they put Damon in the presidential suite - so overnight he went from a death row cell to a suite with a baby grand piano, two bedrooms, a TV in every room and room service! He didn’t know what to do with it all; it was like he’d walked into a different life.


After his release, Steve Kaplan rented a car and drove Damon to Minnesota from Louisiana. There’s an organisation in Minnesota called Project for Pride in Living, which helped Damon find a place to live, and Steve helped him get a job in the law office, where he worked for about a year. The Innocent Project helped him buy a car and pay his bills, so within a few short weeks he already had a phenomenal support network in place. They even helped him get a new birth certificate, since the original, incredibly, was destroyed when he went to prison.


About a year after moving to Minnesota, Damon went to an auto show where he met Bill Collins, who runs a truck driving school. Bill said he would pay for Damon to go through the $5,000 truck driving course, and now Damon drives a truck across the country. He says he’s often asked by reporters why he would choose to do something like that, because he has to sleep in the truck, which is smaller than a prison cell. His answer is that he wakes up in a different place every day, he can leave the truck, drop it off, go home, take time off - but also having gone through what he did, he can manage the solitary time on the road without it ever feeling like solitary confinement.


During the course of all this, he was able to get to know his son and spend time with his three grandchildren. He reflects that while his son is probably one of the most honourable men he knows, it’s sad to think that he had nothing to do with that. He missed him going to school, his birthdays, doing what fathers do with their sons, helping him become a man. Damon believes his son is more angry about his case than he is, because he lost his father. It’s not only the victim’s family who suffers when a miscarriage of justice takes place.


In addition to his driving job, Damon also works with Witness to Innocence, and speaks around the country (now around the world!) about his story. He thanks LifeLines for the cards and letters, and encourages us that when we get to a low point, we shouldn’t give up. Our friends may not know what to do, and sometimes they can’t write back, but we should keep fighting because we’re a bigger rock than we think, and it really helps.


After lunch, we heard from Claire Jenkins, co-chair of British legal charity Amicus, and one of the organisation’s former placement volunteers, Daniella. First Daniella told us a little about her placement this summer, during which she worked at the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana (CPCPL) in New Orleans. During her time there she had the opportunity to draft claims, go to client conferences, attend hearings and visit inmates in Angola.


Daniella describes Angola, which was about a two-hour drive from the office, as being like a mini city, with buildings that are very nicely painted and well kept. She recalls that it looked very beautiful from the outside, but it was chilling to know what goes on inside. The prison is also a farm, so as they were driving the ten minutes from the entrance to death row, they could see inmates working in the fields.


During her visit, Daniella met three inmates on the row. They talked about everything from music to books to poetry to food, alligators and God – nothing was off limits. They were all strangers, but there was no awkward silence at all. It was an amazing experience and incredibly powerful. Daniella found all the men to be very positive and grounded, and it made her realise that while we may all have moments in life where we feel down, the truth is that there are people going through things we can’t even imagine.


Daniella believes that her placement with Amicus was life-changing, both professionally and personally. During her time in Louisiana she also had the opportunity to speak to some exonerees, and they always said how much they looked forward to receiving letters, and summer visits from placement volunteers. She believes that the work done by both Amicus and LifeLines is incredible, and encourages everyone to get involved.


Claire then spoke briefly about how Amicus works. The organisation, established in 1992 by Jane Officer in memory of her pen friend Andrew Lee Jones, sends around 30 volunteers each year to work at 25 capital defence offices across 15 states in the USA. Once the relationships with these offices had been established, Amicus initially provided grants for volunteers to arrange their own placements of between three and eighteen months. Over time, however, the law offices reported that some volunteers weren’t working out due to insufficient training or emotional preparation, as well as the lack of a support network once they arrived. They said what they needed in the UK was an organisation that would handle everything so the volunteers were able to do the vital work that was required, so Amicus shifted their funding towards establishing a full application process and mandatory pre-placement training for all volunteers.


One of the key points of this process is to ensure that the applicants are not just able to do the work but also that they have the ability to cope with what can be a very traumatic experience. Not only is there the chance a client could have their sentence carried out during the placement, but there’s also the possibility of resistance and animosity from the local community. Once the placement is underway, Amicus ensures the volunteers are getting enough support, and that they’re not being worked 24/7 by their host office – as important as the work is, it’s just as essential to get some downtime to avoid burnout.


The important point is that what Amicus provides – which also includes managing UK-based lawyers doing case work for US death penalty attorneys - has always been driven by what the capital defence offices have advised them would be the most helpful. This ensures that in an area of law which is dramatically underfunded and overworked, this excellent organisation is able to make a huge and much-needed difference.

Report by Liz Dyer; Photographs by Caz Dyer