Blaine residents host car show for those exonerated

Damon Thibodeaux and Audrey Edmunds, who both now live in the Twin Cities area, served over 10 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

Left to right: Johnny Johnson, Damon Thibodeaux, Audrey Edmunds and Joan Treppa stand by Johnson’s 1934 Ford three-window coupe. Johnson and Treppa live in Blaine and are coordinating a Sept. 22 car show in Ham Lake to raise money for the Minnesota Innocence Project in its quest to exonerated the wrongfully imprisoned. Four exonerated people, including Thibodeaux and Edmunds will share their stories. Photo by Eric Hagen

Left to right: Johnny Johnson, Damon Thibodeaux, Audrey Edmunds and Joan Treppa stand by Johnson’s 1934 Ford three-window coupe. Johnson and Treppa live in Blaine and are coordinating a Sept. 22 car show in Ham Lake to raise money for the Minnesota Innocence Project in its quest to exonerated the wrongfully imprisoned. Four exonerated people, including Thibodeaux and Edmunds will share their stories. Photo by Eric Hagen

Although both were exonerated, they will never forget being locked away from society – having to constantly fight to clear their name while being treated as a criminal who killed somebody.

“It’s not the system that is the problem,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s the human factor. People have the wrong perception that the justice system is perfect.”

Their stories have received national attention. Edmunds was interviewed by Katie Couric. Thibodeaux’s story will be featured on the CBS television show “48 Hours,” possibly on Dec. 14 he has heard.

Whether through bad police investigations, inadequate legal representation or unclear instructions to a jury, Blaine residents Joan Treppa and Johnny Johnson, volunteers with the Innocence Project of Minnesota, have heard many stories of why 1,203 people have been exonerated since 1989 from U.S. prisons, including Thibodeaux and Edmunds .

“I was so enraged about the whole issue of people being wrongfully convicted,” was what went through Treppa’s mind when she read a book called “The Monfils Conspiracy” that tells the story of six Green Bay, Wis., men given life sentences in 1995 for the 1992 murder of co-worker Tom Monfils.

One of the six — Mike Piaskowski — was released in 2001 and will be one of four exonerated people including Edmunds, Thibodeaux and Ron Keine who will be at a Sept. 22 fundraiser at Route 65 Classics, 14954 Aberdeen St. NE, in Ham Lake.

Proceeds raised during the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. event will benefit the non-profit Innocence Project of Minnesota organization.

The outpouring of support has been phenomenal, especially from Route 65, which connected them with many vendors they work with to make sure this event is a success, according to Treppa and Johnson.

A company did several thousand dollars of free work to create trophies for the top five cars as chosen by the four exonerated guests of honor, Treppa and Johnson said.

“These people are just phenomenal to open their doors,” Johnson said of Route 65 Classics. “They were very receptive, very cordial and wanting to help.”

Treppa and Johnson have very different backgrounds, but they now have the same focus to free those who were wrongfully incarcerated for any crimes, not just murder.

Treppa, who helps moves seniors to new homes for a company called Gentle Transitions, loves a good crime novel. After reading the book on the Monfils case, she connected with the authors and offered to go door knocking to sell their book and this is how she met Johnson.

According to Johnson, the irony that he is trying to exonerate prisoners because he used to work in law enforcement and was a private investigator. Although he is retired, he still does pro bono investigations for people wrongfully incarcerated for murder, rape, robbery or arson.

Johnson said he has known a lot of good cops, but bad cops as well and has witnessed some questionable behavior so he knew it was likely that there are innocent people serving in prisons across the country.

New medical findings frees Edmunds

Edmunds, 52, was a stay-at-home mother in Waunakee, Wis., who would frequently baby-sit for neighborhood families.

On Oct. 16, 1995, Edmunds, then 34, left 7-month-old Natalie Beard with her bottle in Edmunds’ bedroom. When she went to check on her half-an-hour later, Natalie seemed to be choking and was unresponsive.

Edmunds called 911 and paramedics found Natalie  had fixed and dilated pupils and was taking short breaths. Soon afterwards, she stopped breathing and never regained consciousness.

Just over 13 months later on Nov. 26, 1996, Edmunds was convicted and sentenced to prison for 18 years for first-degree reckless homicide. She was allowed three months before she reported to prison and was able to  to live with her kids in Minnesota during that time. She was able to celebrate her youngest daughter’s first birthday before being incarcerated two days later.

“It tore my marriage apart and it’s still different for our kids,” Edmonds said. “It’s never the way you wanted to raise your kids and now they’re doing their own thing and I still want to do more with them and yet you just have to make the best of the time you’re with them,”

Her three daughters who are now 17, 19 and 22 years old stood by her side during this difficult time, she said.

Although there was no visible injuries to the skull or spine, several medical experts testified for the prosecution that Natalie’s death was a hallmark case of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

The defense called a pediatric neurologist to the stand to testify that the injuries found in the autopsy could have been caused earlier. Natalie’s medical record included dozens of trips to the doctor and several days before her death her parents had taken her in for lethargy, irritability and vomiting, which can indicate brain injury.

Edmunds said Natalie’s parents had called the hospital 25 times in 27 weeks.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project, seeing advances in Shaken Baby Syndrome medical research that cast serious doubts on this case, took up Edmunds’ case without her prompting. There was increasing evidence that the diagnostic “triad of symptoms” including brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging and retinal hemorrhaging could be caused by short falls or the lingering effects of birth trauma.

The updated medical field knowledge led the forensic pathologist who conducted Beard’s autopsy and five other doctors to testify on Edmund’s behalf at a 2007 evidentiary hearing, but the trial court judge who heard the case in 1996 did not order a new trial.

This ruling was overturned Jan. 31, 2008 by the Wisconsin Fourth District Court of Appeals and Edmunds was released on bond within a week.

Edmunds called her oldest daughter first to share the good news and both found it great they could talk on a cell phone, which were not around when Edmunds went to prison and she could not call her daughters’ cell phones from the prison phone.

Although she was released, there was still the remote possibility of a re-trial hanging over her head. Prosecutors did not officially dismiss the case until July 11 of that year.

Today, she does clerical work for a company called Harvey Allen Outdoors.

Sitting on death row

Thibodeaux was only 21 years old when he was accused of brutally raping and murdering his 14-year-old step-cousin Crystal Champagne.

Thibodeaux had a clear conscience when he went to speak with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department, but he said nine hours later he was exhausted and hungry and not thinking clearly and ended up signing a confession. He later tried to recant his statement, but was ignored.

A week after the crime, detectives interviewed two women walking on the levee in Marrero, La., near where Champagne’s body was found. Both said they saw a man pacing and acting nervously the evening of the murder in that area. They picked a photo of Thibodeaux from a photo line-up.

These two pieces of information almost cost Thibodeaux his life. He was sentenced to death for first-degree murder and rape Oct. 3, 1997.

“What gets me is the night I was arrested the sheriff talked to the media and told them I was never a suspect because my whereabouts were so well accounted for by myself and others,” Thibodeaux said. “So why did you proceed? And I can’t ask him that because he’s dead. He died a few years back.”

In 2007, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office agreed to reinvestigate the case with the Innocence Project and other lawyers who volunteered to work on this case, including the large Minneapolis firm of Fredrickson & Byron.

It turns out the two women police talked to had seen the suspicious person the day after the body was recovered when Thibodeaux was already in custody. Furthermore, they had seen Thibodeaux’s picture in the news before police showed them the photo line-up.

Advances in DNA testing saved his life. Extensive testing of items recovered from the scene where Champagne’s body was found failed to link Thibodeaux to the murder. The tests also showed that despite Thibodeaux’s false confession of rape, she had not been sexually assaulted.

Thibodeaux’s attorneys argued that the confession was false and unreliable because police fed him details of the crime and coerced him into making a confession. The details in the confession did not even match the evidence recovered. He stated in the false confession that he strangled Champagne with a gray speaker wire he took from his car. Police recovered a red cord tied to a tree near the crime scene.

DNA testing identified a male DNA profile that did not belong to Thibodeaux, but police still do not know who killed Champagne, Thibodeaux said.

He spent 15 years of his life in prison – Sept. 29 is the one-year anniversary of his release. He is now 39 years old and works for an office management service company and he is going to truck driving school.

For more information on the car show

Hot rods, muscle cars, customs, antiques and classic cars show
Sunday, Sept. 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Route 65 Classics, 14954 Aberdeen St. NW, in Ham Lake.
Check-in at 9 a.m. $10 entry fee
Spectators get in free, but donations welcome.
All proceeds going to Minnesota Innocence Project

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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