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After 37 years, he’s free. Exonerated man walks out of Florida prison

Robert Duboise was convicted of a 1983 rape and murder in Tampa. A judge ruled on Thursday that he should be released.

BOWLING GREEN — Robert Duboise is free.

A day after the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office said that new evidence exonerated him in a 1983 Tampa murder, Duboise stepped past the razor wire gates of Hardee Correctional Institution to embark on life after prison.

His mother and sister were there to greet him. So was one of the lawyers who worked to secure his release.

“It’s an overwhelming sense of relief,” Duboise said to reporters, adding that he had “no bitterness at all.”

“I don’t have room in my life for bitterness,” he said. “If you keep hatred and bitterness in your heart, it just steals your joy from everything else.”

What’s the first thing he wants to do now?

“I did it,” Duboise said. “I hugged my mom.”

A judge cleared the way Thursday morning for Duboise to be released from the state prison.

Robert Duboise is released from prison on Thursday in Bowling Green, Fla. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office announced Wednesday that it believes Duboise is innocent of a 1983 Tampa murder. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

After hearing from an assistant state attorney and a lawyer for the Innocence Project, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Nash said there appeared to be no remaining factual or legal basis to support Duboise’ conviction.

The judge amended Duboise’ life sentence to time already served. He set a date of Sept. 14 for a hearing at which attorneys will work to overturn his conviction entirely.

Duboise, 55, has been incarcerated since 1983. He was convicted in the murder of 19-year-old Barbara Grams, who was raped and beaten while walking home from her restaurant job at a Tampa mall.

Barbara Grams appears in a photograph provided by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. [ Hillsborough State Attorney's Office ]

The case rested heavily on bite-mark evidence, which is now regarded as unreliable, and jailhouse informant testimony, which is a common factor in many wrongful conviction cases.

Duboise originally was sentenced to death, but his penalty was reduced to a life sentence on appeal.

Robert Duboise appears in a photo taken by the Florida Department of Corrections. On Wednesday, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office announced that DNA evidence had exonerated Duboise from a 1983 Tampa murder. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

“He practically went from high school to death row,” Innocence Project Attorney Susan Friedman said. The Innocence Project is a national nonprofit whose mission is to free wrongfully incarcerated people.

The organization got involved in the Duboise case in 2018. They brought it to the attention of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s conviction review unit.

It was thought that all the evidence had been destroyed in 1990. But Teresa Hall, the attorney in charge of the unit, discovered that old DNA samples from a rape kit were stored at the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office. Recent tests of those samples revealed they did not match Duboise.

The samples did include DNA from two other men, one of whom is now a person of interest in the case, Warren said.

It was just after 2:30 p.m. Thursday when Duboise stepped out of a car that had carried him away from the prison grounds.

He wore a black T-shirt and light-colored pants. He stepped toward a set of microphones and a bank of TV cameras alongside his mother, Myra, and sister, Harriet.

Before these latest efforts, Duboise said, he had long exhausted his own efforts to appeal his case. His only hope was parole. But in a recent parole interview, he was asked about remorse.

”I can’t tell you I’m remorseful for something I didn’t do,” he said.

Earlier this month, his attorney told him about the new DNA samples. She told him someone would visit to take a swab of his DNA.

Days later, she delivered the news: “You’re going to be free.”

But he wasn’t sure it would happen.

”After all these years, you always have to wonder if they’re going to throw another curve in there somewhere,” he said.

Word spread quickly Wednesday when he got the final word, he said. The building where he was housed erupted in cheers.

He thanked the people who found the new evidence. He urged people to support the work of groups like the Innocence Project.

”I’m not the only one,” he said.

He was asked his thoughts about the person who is responsible for the crime.

”I hope God has mercy on his soul,” Duboise said. “I’m not his judge.”

He mentioned nervousness as he enters a world he has largely never known. He’s never used a cell phone or a computer.

Most of his meals have been heavy on beans and rice. He doesn’t eat meat. He didn’t know what his first post-prison meal would be.

He doesn’t know what the future looks like, but in prison he learned trade skills like servicing air conditioning and plumbing.

Prison taught him patience, he said. And not to judge others.

“We need to remember there are lots of victims here,” Andrew Warren said in a news conference. “Our community has been victimized by a falsehood. The system suffers an erosion of trust and confidence.

“And most significantly, the victim’s family, as I’ve said before, they were sold a bill of goods on this. They were told a story that was not true. They were given a false sense of closure about what happened.”

Related: State Attorney: DNA exonerates man in 1983 Tampa murder