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Convictions voided in Tampa murder exoneration case

A judge agreed Monday to undo the convictions of Robert DuBoise after evidence showed he is innocent of a 1983 murder for which he served 37 years in prison.

TAMPA — A judge set aside the criminal convictions Monday of Robert DuBoise, a Tampa man who served 37 years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit.

A two-hour court hearing concluded with Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Nash formally undoing DuBoise' convictions, absolving him of the crimes and clearing the way for his new life as a free person.

“This court has failed you for 37 years,” Nash told DuBoise. “I think it would be reasonable for you to feel a lot of resentment and bitterness about those 37 years. But you instead seem to have an uncommon capacity for grace and forgiveness. ... And I admire you for those qualities. ... I wish you happiness going forward."

In a news conference after the hearing, DuBoise thanked Susan Friedman, the attorney for the New York-based Innocence Project who spearheaded efforts to prove his innocence. He also thanked State Attorney Andrew Warren and Teresa Hall, the attorney in charge of the conviction review unit, who identified the DNA evidence that secured his exoneration. He said it was reassuring to know that there are honest people working in the system.

“From day one, they only sought the truth,” DuBoise said.

Warren established the conviction review unit two years ago. The specialized body within the State Attorney’s Office reviews old cases in which defendants claim to be innocent in an effort to root out wrongful convictions. It is one of four such units in Florida. DuBoise' is their first murder case that has produced an exoneration.

“There is simply no reason for a prosecutor, when faced with the possibility of a wrongful conviction, to simply shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Sorry there’s nothing we can do,’” Warren said. “There is always something we can do.”

Robert DuBoise speaks during a news conference Monday at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office after a judge voided his convictions in a 1983 Tampa murder case. New evidence proved DuBoise was innocent of the crime. To his left is attorney Susan Friedman of the Innocence Project.
Robert DuBoise speaks during a news conference Monday at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office after a judge voided his convictions in a 1983 Tampa murder case. New evidence proved DuBoise was innocent of the crime. To his left is attorney Susan Friedman of the Innocence Project. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | TIMES ]

DuBoise, 55, was convicted of the 1983 murder of Barbara Grams. She was 19 and worked at a restaurant in a Tampa shopping mall. On Aug. 19, 1983, a dentist found her body in a yard behind his office at 3911 N Boulevard. She had been raped and beaten.

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

Tampa police arrested DuBoise a couple months later. A forensic dentist, Dr. Richard Souviron, examined a model of DuBoise’ teeth and told investigators that it matched a bite mark on Grams’ cheek. A jailhouse informant, who claimed that DuBoise made a confession about sex with a woman, also helped secure his conviction.

In recent years, studies have demonstrated that bite-mark evidence is scientifically unreliable. It has led to a number of wrongful convictions. Organizations such as the Innocence Project also have raised concerns about the frequency with which jailhouse snitches contribute to wrongful convictions.

Friedman began representing DuBoise in 2018. She brought his case to the attention of Warren’s office.

Teresa Hall, the attorney in charge of the conviction review unit, found that much of the evidence had been destroyed long ago. But she learned that the Hillsborough medical examiner had stored slides from a rape kit taken during Grams' autopsy. The slides were sent to a private lab for DNA testing.

On Aug. 20, results showed the samples contained DNA from two men. Robert DuBoise was not one of them.

One of the people whose DNA was identified is now a person of interest, Warren has said. His name has not been disclosed, but Warren said he poses no threat to the public. An investigation remains ongoing.

Robert Duboise leaves the State Attorney's Office with his attorney Susan Friedman after a hearing to exonerate him following his release from prison, where he served 37 years for a crime he did not commit, on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in Tampa.
Robert Duboise leaves the State Attorney's Office with his attorney Susan Friedman after a hearing to exonerate him following his release from prison, where he served 37 years for a crime he did not commit, on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

In Monday’s hearing, the judge heard testimony from Adam Freeman, a former president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology. He detailed the evolution of bite-mark analysis, referencing a number of studies, including a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which found there is no scientific basis to support the notion that a bite mark on human skin can be matched to a specific biter.

Freeman likened bite-mark analysis to two people gazing at clouds in the sky, one saying that a cloud looks like an alligator and the other saying the same cloud looks like a bear.

He also detailed his own review and analysis of DuBoise’ case. He explained that bruising on Grams' cheek wasn’t a bite mark at all. He also criticized methods that were used to preserve the mark and to create teeth models. He was especially critical of the methods and conclusions of Dr. Souviron, whom he called a mentor.

When reached two weeks ago, Souviron told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that he would not testify the same way today that he did 37 years ago.

“There’s no question, I feel terrible," Souviron told the Times.

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

Judge Nash two weeks ago approved DuBoise' immediate release from prison.

Since then, DuBoise has found a home at the Sunny Center, a charity that provides help and housing for exonerees. State law allows financial compensation for some wrongfully incarcerated people, but excludes those with prior convictions. DuBoise was convicted of a minor burglary case as a teenager, making him ineligible.

Before Monday’s hearing, Warren’s announced a partnership with the Innocence Project to review past convictions that relied on bite-mark evidence. The process will be arduous, as old court records are not sorted based on the type of evidence used, and individual case files are stored in boxes with yellowing paper and aging cassette tapes.

He said his office could use help. He called on people who may know of a wrongful conviction in Hillsborough County to submit a petition to his conviction review unit.

“Our hope is that we won’t find another Robert DuBoise in Hillsborough County," he said. “If we don’t, it won’t be for a lack of trying.”

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