State Attorney: DNA exonerates man in 1983 Tampa murder

The Innocence Project and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren's conviction review unit determined that new DNA tests demonstrate Robert Duboise is not guilty in the rape and murder of Barbara Grams.
Robert Duboise has been incarcerated since 1983 for a Tampa murder that prosecutors now believe he did not commit.
Robert Duboise has been incarcerated since 1983 for a Tampa murder that prosecutors now believe he did not commit. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Aug. 26, 2020|Updated Aug. 26, 2020

TAMPA — A man who has been incarcerated for 37 years may soon be released after new DNA evidence revealed he is innocent of a 1983 Tampa rape and murder, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said.

Warren announced in a news conference Wednesday afternoon that his conviction review unit had examined the case of Robert Duboise and concluded that he likely is not guilty of the murder of Barbara Grams.

Warren’s office plans to ask a judge tomorrow to free Duboise. In the coming weeks, they will work to overturn his conviction.

“Today is an important day for justice — justice for the family of a victim and a man convicted of killing her,” Warren said. “This is painful and tragic. But it’s the truth, and when you tell the truth, justice is done.”

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

Duboise, 55, was found guilty in 1985 for the rape and murder of Grams.

She was 19 when she was attacked and beaten with a wood beam while walking home from her restaurant job in a Tampa shopping mall. A gardener found her body the morning of Aug. 19 in the yard outside a dentist office at 3911 N Boulevard.

The state’s theory was that Duboise, his brother and another man spotted Grams while she was walking, abducted her, then raped and killed her behind the office. The other two were never charged. Duboise was arrested a few months after the crime.

His conviction relied heavily on the testimony of Dr. Richard Souviron, a forensic dentist. Souviron told a jury that a bite mark on the victim’s cheek matched Duboise’ teeth, “to a reasonable degree of dental certainty.”

Bite-mark evidence in recent years has come to be regarded as unreliable. A different dentist recently examined the evidence and found that the mark on Grams’ face was not from a bite after all.

“Today, I would never say what I said 37 years ago,” Souviron said Wednesday when reached by phone. “Today, I would say I could not eliminate him. There could have been a million other people whose teeth fit.”

Souviron added that he eliminated a handful of other suspects in the case before identifying the bite as coming from Duboise.

“From a human point of view, of course, I feel terrible,” he said. “I played a part in his conviction. There’s no question I feel terrible.”

The case also hinged on testimony from a jailhouse informant, who claimed Duboise confessed that he raped Grams while two other men beat her to death.

Often referred to pejoratively as “snitch testimony,” the words of jailhouse informants also have been scrutinized in recent years as a factor in many wrongful conviction cases.

“We accepted this case because it had the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction,” said Susan Friedman, a lawyer for the New York-based Innocence Project. “Knowing that the case rested on just these two types of evidence was a strong indication to us that Robert was an innocent man.”

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Friedman, who took up the Duboise case in 2018, brought it to the attention of Warren’s conviction review unit last September.

Related: People wrongfully convicted can now petition Hillsborough state attorney for review

It was thought that all the evidence in the case had been destroyed in 1990. (The Hillsborough Clerk of Court now has a policy of retaining all evidence until after a defendant has died.)

Teresa Hall, a conviction review unit attorney, found that DNA samples from a rape kit were still stored at the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office.

On Aug. 20, new tests of those samples showed that the DNA did not belong to Duboise, Warren said. It also did not belong to his brother or the other man implicated by the jailhouse informant.

It did match two other people, one of whom is now a person of interest in the case, Warren said. That person has not been named, but “poses no threat to the public,” Warren said. He declined to elaborate. An investigation is ongoing.

Warren’s office plans to ask a judge Thursday morning to re-sentence Duboise to time-served to get him out of prison quickly. In the coming weeks, they will work up a detailed court paper outlining the reasons why his conviction should be overturned.

“When science tells us we’ve convicted the wrong person, it’s up to us to listen and to act,” Warren said. “I apologize to Mr. Duboise on behalf of the entire criminal justice system.”

Duboise is incarcerated at Hardee Correctional Institution, roughly 43 miles southeast of Tampa. Arrangements are being made for him to reside at the Sunny Center, a Tampa facility that houses exonerated former prisoners.

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

He could go free as soon as tomorrow.

The prosecutor who sent Duboise to prison, according to news archives, was Mark Ober, who later served 16 years as state attorney until he was defeated in a close race against Warren in 2016.

Ober did not respond Wednesday to multiple messages for comment.

The judge was Harry Lee Coe, who later left the bench and preceded Ober as state attorney.

Coe earned the moniker “Hangin’ Harry” for the harsh sentences he imposed. In the case of Duboise, he overrode a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence and sent the then-20-year-old to death row.

An appeals court later reduced the sentence to life in prison.

Warren has made the conviction review unit a centerpiece of his campaign for reelection.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has advocated for various criminal justice reforms. [TIMES | (2018)]
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has advocated for various criminal justice reforms. [TIMES | (2018)] [ Times (2018) ]

Its creation was one of the things he said he wanted to accomplish when he first ran for office in 2016.

He managed to do so, with much fanfare, in November 2018, hiring one full-time attorney to lead the unit, along with a support staffer and an investigator. The team screens cases for possible claims of innocence before sending them to a review panel that includes retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince, former State Attorney and Appellate Judge E.J. Salcines, and former Appellate Judge Chris Altenbernd.

The unit’s prior work involved overturning 18 convictions that rested on the testimony of three Tampa police officers who were fired for misconduct. A 19th case involved a man convicted on a drug charge when he had a prescription.

Duboise is the first wrongful murder conviction the unit has identified.