Florida lawmakers OK $1.85 million for Tampa man’s wrongful conviction

The Legislature approved bills to compensate Robert DuBoise, who spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Robert DuBoise is pictured at his new home after he was released from prison in 2020 in Tampa.
Robert DuBoise is pictured at his new home after he was released from prison in 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published April 29

Almost 40 years ago, Florida condemned Robert DuBoise to die in prison. On Friday, the state’s elected representatives made a gesture to tell him they were sorry.

It was an apology that came with the promise of $1.85 million, representing $50,000 for each of the 37 years that DuBoise spent wrongfully incarcerated for a murder he did not commit.

The Florida House of Representatives voted unanimously Friday to approve a bill that would compensate DuBoise for his wrongful conviction. An identical companion bill passed the Florida Senate last week. The measure now awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature.

From a House spectator gallery, DuBoise stood and smiled as state representatives gave him a standing ovation Friday after the vote.

“I’m just really thankful it’s done,” DuBoise said afterward. “I met a lot of good people. And I’m thankful to them for being so supportive.”

He spent all day Friday watching lawmakers debate and vote on other legislation, waiting more than eight hours for them to consider his case.

Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, one of the House bill’s sponsors, said he was told that DuBoise has learned to be patient.

“We have a part to play and this is it,” Duggan told House members. “We can apologize and we can do, in a small way, something to make him whole.”

DuBoise was 18 when Hillsborough prosecutors falsely accused him of killing Barbara Grams.

The 20-year-old woman was attacked one night in August 1983 as she walked home from her job in a Tampa shopping mall. She was found the next morning behind an N Boulevard dental office. She’d been sexually assaulted and beaten with a wood board.

Investigators fixated on a wound on Grams’ cheek, which they believed was a bite mark. Police took bite samples from people they considered possible suspects.

Dr. Richard Souviron, a forensic odontologist who famously testified in the Ted Bundy case, opined that DuBoise’s teeth made the mark on Grams’ cheek. The state’s case was bolstered by the words of a jailhouse informant who claimed DuBoise confessed to him.

Based largely on that evidence, a jury convicted DuBoise in 1985. Judge Harry Lee Coe, who was known as “Hangin’ Harry” for his harsh sentences and who would later serve two terms as Hillsborough State Attorney, overruled the jury’s recommendation for a life sentence, sending DuBoise to death row. Three years later, his sentence was reduced to life.

In the ensuing decades, questions arose about the reliability of the type of evidence the state used to convict him. Bite mark evidence is now considered scientifically unreliable and has been identified as contributing to numerous wrongful convictions. Jailhouse informants, likewise, have been identified as a frequent factor in wrongful convictions.

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DuBoise in 2006 tried to secure DNA testing in his case, which was not available in 1983. But a court clerk testified that all the evidence had by then been destroyed.

Several years later, DuBoise connected with the Innocence Project, the New York-based legal organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. His attorney, Susan Friedman, submitted a petition to the conviction review unit of the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office.

Former Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren established the unit in 2018 with the stated aim of rooting out cases of innocent people who’d been imprisoned.

Conviction review attorney Teresa Hall examined DuBoise’s case. In August 2020, she discovered that microscope slides related to the homicide investigation were still kept at the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office. The slides carried DNA that was collected during a routine rape exam after Grams was killed.

Testing showed that DNA from the slides did not match DuBoise. The tests did show a match to two people, who had no connection to DuBoise, and whose DNA was in a national database.

DuBoise was freed from prison. In September 2020, a judge voided his convictions.

Two years later, a grand jury returned an indictment against Amos Robinson and Abron Scott for the murder of Grams. Both men are serving life in prison for a 1983 Pinellas County murder. They are also charged with the slaying of Linda Lansen, who disappeared from her Tampa apartment in July 1983. Both prosecutions remain pending.

Since his exoneration three years ago, DuBoise has worked as a truck driver and a maintenance worker for a country club. He made repeated trips to Tallahassee in recent weeks to appear before committees and meet lawmakers. He had help from Delegal Aubuchon Consulting, a public policy firm, which represented him on a pro bono basis.

“It’s been a privilege to work with Mr. DuBoise who, despite losing nearly four decades of his life, has shown immense grace and resolve throughout the process,” said Mark Delegal, a partner in the firm.

DuBoise said he hopes to use the money to open a business, buy a home and help his family.

“The money that’s given in no way makes up for the years, months, days, minutes, and moments lost,” said Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, one of the bill’s sponsors. “But it is my prayer that for the 37 years that Mr. DuBoise experienced, I pray that this will at least give him some relief. And when the money hits his account, I pray that he will flourish.”