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An exonerated man adjusts to life in Tampa after 37 years away

A new look at old evidence led to Robert DuBoise' freedom two weeks ago. On Monday, he will seek full exoneration in a Tampa court.

TAMPA — For Robert DuBoise, freedom is stepping out of his little yellow house into the dark and sipping a cup of hot coffee as he gazes at a near-full moon.

Freedom is understanding that when he sits on his new bed, the mattress will bounce and shift, unlike the prison cots where he has laid his head for nearly four decades. It’s rising in the night when he hears a subtle whir and knowing that it’s just the refrigerator motor and not another prisoner who may do him harm.

Freedom is getting up sleepless at 4 a.m. and standing in the grassy yard as the first glimmer of orange streaks the horizon.

“Everything is brand new to me,” he says. “You might as well say I just came from another planet.”

DuBoise, who turns 56 next month, is still getting used to all these things, still mulling what to make of the life that’s ahead of him, after so much was taken away.

Junk science helped send him to prison 37 years ago. Real science helped free him two weeks ago.

On Monday, he will attend a court hearing alongside prosecutors from the office that once wrongfully labeled him a murderer. They will ask a judge to fully clear his name.

Related: State Attorney: DNA exonerates man in 1983 Tampa murder
Robert Duboise sits on his bed at his new home at the Sunny Center in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

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Robert DuBoise as he appeared at his 1985 trial. [ TIMES | (1985)] ]

DuBoise, the fourth of seven children, grew up poor. But he says his parents always gave them what they needed. He was born in Tampa but lived for a time in Georgia and South Carolina.

As a kid, he helped his mother care for his disabled father. As a teen, he lived in a Seminole Heights bungalow. He attended Wilson Middle School and Plant High School, but did not graduate. He had a job at a Town ‘N Country auto upholstery business. He’d been in minor trouble — a burglary conviction for what he describes as walking into a house that was for rent and walking out to find police — and got a probation sentence.

He was 18 in 1983. In pictures, he is skinny with a mop of long, dark hair and a thin mustache.

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

Barbara Grams was a year older. She lived with three male roommates who were brothers in a home along N Boulevard in Riverside Heights. She worked at a restaurant called the Hot Potato in Tampa Bay Center, a defunct shopping mall that stood near what is now Raymond James Stadium.

Friends said she was concerned about her weight, so she liked to walk the roughly 2 1/2 miles to and from work. The story of what happened to her and everything that followed is told in court transcripts and news archives.

Grams got off work late the night of Aug. 18 and headed out along W Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, then called Buffalo Avenue. People saw her walking south toward home.

Just after 8 o’clock the next morning, a dentist pulled into his office at 3911 N Boulevard and found her body in a rear yard. She’d been beaten in the head with a wood beam. She’d also been raped.

A neighbor reported hearing a pair of screams the night before and a loud car radio and tires squealing. But no one saw the crime. Police had little evidence.

They talked with people who knew Grams and people who didn’t and put together a list of nine suspects.

Someone pointed them to Robert DuBoise. He was said to be part of a group that hung out at Hutto’s Corner, a grocery store near the murder scene. But no one could place him there that night. His mother would later testify that he was home.

A photograph of a wound on the body of Barbara Grams. Police in 1983 believed it was a bite mark. [ Hillsborough State Attorney's Office ]

Police fixated on a circular wound on Grams' left cheek. A dentist identified it as a bite mark. A detective asked DuBoise and several other men for consent to take beeswax molds of their teeth. A forensic dentist, Dr. Richard Souviron, examined the models. He concluded that DuBoise left the mark on Grams' cheek. It was enough for an arrest.

Prosecutors developed a theory that DuBoise, his brother and a friend targeted Grams for a purse-snatch robbery. When it went wrong, prosecutors said, they attacked her behind the dentist office.

Fingerprints at the crime scene did not belong to DuBoise. Hairs on Grams’ body were not his. Likewise for the other two men.

But the state bolstered its case with the words of Claude Butler, a Hillsborough County jail inmate. He was awaiting trial on kidnapping and other charges when he was housed with DuBoise.

A detective had visited him, asking if DuBoise had said anything about the crime. Butler first said no. But later, he claimed DuBoise spoke of sex with a woman but denied killing her.

A jury deliberated over two days before delivering their verdict: guilty of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery.

When he heard it, DuBoise kicked a chair and uttered expletives.

The judge told him he knew he was in a tough position.

“You don’t know how tough it is,” DuBoise said.

“Get me out of here,” he said. “I said get me out of here.”

The prosecutor, Mark Ober, who would later serve 16 years as Hillsborough County’s state attorney, argued for a death sentence.

But after a perfunctory sentencing hearing, the jury unanimously recommended life in prison.

Judge Harry Lee Coe III, whose hard sentences tagged him with the moniker “Hangin' Harry,” and who also would serve two terms as Hillsborough’s top prosecutor, decided the jurors were wrong.

He sent DuBoise to death row.

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Robert DuBoise appears in a mug shot upon his arrival on Florida's death row in 1985. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

DuBoise spent three years in a 6-by-9-foot cell at Florida State Prison near Starke, alone with little else to do but watch TV, listen to the radio or write letters. He got a 5-minute shower three times a week and recreation time twice a week for two hours.

“The hardest part is just trying to figure out why,” he said recently. “How can this be happening?

"I kept thinking, I’m going to wake up tomorrow and just see that it was a bad dream. But every day, I woke up, and the bars were still there.”

He lived beside notorious men, scarcely seeing their faces but able to hear them. He remembers names — Willie Darden, Jesse Tafero, Marvin Francois, Ted Bundy. All were executed.

He remembers being told one day in 1988 that his sentence had been reduced to life. He wasn’t happy.

“Nobody was even trying to help me prove my innocence,” he said. “All they were doing was concentrating on a sentence instead of a conviction. I just didn’t understand it.”

He joined the lifer population at Florida State Prison, which he described as a “madhouse,” full of the state’s most brutal prisoners. Because he’d been on death row, other prisons were reluctant to take him, he said.

But a state prison electrician heard he was skilled in electronics and plumbing. He offered DuBoise a maintenance job. It allowed him to get out of his cell and avoid the hostility and violence. He poured energy into his work, a conscious effort to avoid becoming what society said he was — a hardened criminal.

Over the years, he spent time in six prisons. As a lifer, he was barred from many rehabilitative programs. The ones he could join were faith-based.

He found solace and meaning through Kairos, a Christian program run by outside volunteers who offer a periodic, three-day retreat in the prison chapel with music, prayer, food and talk. He had attended church with his family as a young man. He enjoyed reading the Psalms and the book of Proverbs.

One Bible passage would come to have a special meaning. He heard it in a sermon long ago. It begins at Jeremiah 52:31. It references the story of Jehoiachin, king of Judah, who was dethroned and imprisoned for 37 years before a new ruler set him free.

“So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table ...”

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A model depicting the teeth of Robert DuBoise, created during the 1983 murder investigation. [ Hillsborough State Attorney's Office ]

Susan Friedman, a lawyer for the New York-based Innocence Project, learned of DuBoise' case in 2018 and offered to represent him.

The Innocence Project works to exonerate wrongfully incarcerated people and has upended numerous convictions that were based on bite-mark evidence, now deemed an unreliable forensic tool. The organization also has raised awareness of the frequency with which jailhouse snitches contribute to wrongful convictions.

Friedman filed a petition with the conviction review unit in the office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. He succeeded Ober in 2016 and fulfilled a campaign promise by creating the unit, one of four in the state.

Friedman later consulted Adam Freeman, a former president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology. He reviewed the evidence and concluded that the bruising on Grams' cheek wasn’t a bite mark at all. It was too big. And the individual markings were too round to have been from teeth.

He criticized the methods investigators relied on to preserve the mark and to create teeth models. None met current standards, and they could have distorted the evidence.

Teresa Hall, the conviction review attorney in Warren’s office, pored over the DuBoise case but found much of the evidence had been destroyed. Some remained at the Tampa Police Department. It was there, while looking at the clothes DuBoise wore when he was arrested, that a detective suggested she check with the Hillsborough medical examiner.

Hall did. And sure enough, the medical examiner still had slides from a rape kit taken during Grams' autopsy. The evidence was sent to a private lab for DNA testing.

Days later, Hall was at home watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory when her cell phone rang. It was Aug. 20 and after 9 p.m.

Friedman had news: Lab tests showed that the samples included DNA from two men.

Robert DuBoise was not one of them.

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Robert DuBoise stands outside his new home in Tampa, where he's lived since he was released from prison on Aug. 27. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Related: After 37 years, he's free. Exonerated man walks out of Florida prison

He walked out on Aug. 27. He hugged his mother, Myra, and his sister, Harriett. He stood before a bank of cameras and microphones and spoke of relief.

He had his first meal — a wedge salad, fried okra and an avocado — at the Ulele restaurant near downtown Tampa. A waitress had seen his story and wept when she saw him in person. Managers told him the meal was free.

Home is now a room at the Sunny Center, a charity that offers help and housing for the wrongfully convicted. It’s a collection of three small houses with a big yard and shady oaks in a quiet Tampa neighborhood.

Related: In Tampa, man embarks on life after years on death row

DuBoise has a single bed with blue blankets and pillowcases, but he didn’t get much sleep those first nights. He has a small kitchen with an oven and an Instant Pot but hasn’t cooked.

The Innocence Project helped him fill his closet with new clothes and his freezer with vegetarian bowls. Someone made an Amazon wish list for him. A few days ago, a delivery man showed up with more than a hundred packages — clothing and tools and supplies bought for him by people all over the world.

He’s got a tool set, and he’s collecting plumbing parts. He wants to work in plumbing services, but the parts aren’t for that, he says. He just wants to help people out.

He’s learning to work an iPhone. When he gets stuck, he calls someone in New York for help. He makes it play music from artists who topped the Billboard charts in the 1980s — Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and Elton John.

He’s visited his mom in Tampa. He’s gotten reacquainted with aunts and cousins he last saw almost four decades ago. He met his grandniece, who’s now an adult. The last time he was free, she had yet to be born.

State law allows financial compensation for some wrongfully incarcerated people, but excludes those with prior convictions, making DuBoise ineligible. But it’s not an immediate concern.

On Friday afternoon, his lawyer took him shopping at Target.

He wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Innocence Project” as he wandered the aisles. He gripped a shopping basket and marveled at the merchandise.

“I think I could stay here all day and still not see everything,” he said. “They’ve got a million brands of chips, a million brands of candy. What do you choose?”

He stepped into the electronics section and looked at noise-canceling headphones.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me to block all the noise out,” he said. “Then I don’t know what’s going on.”

He got some crackers, dip and hummus. He picked up a steamer to iron out a suit he got for Monday’s court hearing.

It’s expected a judge will void his convictions entirely.

Robert DuBoise shops at Target with his attorney, Susan Friedman, on Friday in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Editor’s note: A provision of Florida law allows compensation for some wrongfully incarcerated people, but it excludes those who had prior felony convictions, making DuBoise ineligible. An earlier version of this story was unclear on this point.

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