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Tampa council to vote on $14M settlement in wrongful conviction lawsuit

Robert DuBoise sued the city after he spent 37 years in prison for a Tampa murder he did not commit.
 
Robert DuBoise in September 2020, shortly after his release from prison, at his new home in Tampa.
Robert DuBoise in September 2020, shortly after his release from prison, at his new home in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 13|Updated Feb. 13

TAMPA — The Tampa City Council plans to vote Thursday on a resolution that will award $14 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Robert DuBoise, who was wrongfully convicted of a murder and spent 37 years in prison before being exonerated.

DuBoise was freed in 2020 after new DNA testing indicated that two other men, who had no connection to him, were responsible for the 1983 murder of Barbara Grams.

A year after his release, DuBoise filed a federal lawsuit against the city, the retired police officers who investigated the case and a forensic dentist who had opined that his teeth matched a bite mark on the victim.

After months of litigation, the parties in a January mediation conference agreed to a settlement.

The city’s resolution calls for the money to be paid in installments to DuBoise and Leovy & Leovy, the Chicago-based civil rights law firm that represented him in the lawsuit. The money will come from a city insurance fund, beginning with $9 million this year, and $3 million and $2 million respectively in fiscal years 2025 and 2026.

In a statement issued Monday, DuBoise’s legal team wrote that no amount of money could ever compensate him for the decades he lost.

“The tragedy of his wrongful conviction is that it could and should have been prevented,” they wrote. “The settlement is not only an acknowledgement of the harm that Mr. DuBoise suffered, but also an opportunity to help him move forward with his life.”

Tampa police Chief Lee Bercaw also issued a statement, which noted that advancements in training and technology have improved the way the department conducts investigations.

“We recognize the profound and lasting effects of this case, especially on Mr. DuBoise nearly four decades later,” Bercaw said.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor likewise issued a statement through the Police Department, which she agreed had advanced “light years” since the era of DuBoise’s case.

“The credibility of our criminal justice system requires scrupulous accuracy and adherence to the highest investigation standards,” Castor said. “We hope this settlement helps Mr. DuBoise in his healing.”

He was 18 when police arrested him. He is 59 now.

Grams, 19, was attacked in August 1983 as she walked home from her restaurant job at Tampa Bay Center, a mall that once stood near what is now Raymond James Stadium. She was found the next morning behind a North Boulevard dental office. She’d been sexually assaulted and beaten with a wood board.

A medical examiner identified a wound to her left cheek as a human bite mark. Tampa police took bite samples from dozens of men to compare their teeth to the mark.

DuBoise was among them. Though he didn’t know Grams, he was said to frequent the neighborhood.

Richard Souviron, a forensic dentist known as a pioneer in the field of bite mark analysis, identified DuBoise’s teeth as having made the mark on Grams’ cheek.

State prosecutors later bolstered their case with testimony from a jailhouse informant, Claude Butler, who claimed DuBoise confessed to him.

A jury in 1985 found DuBoise guilty. The late Hillsborough Judge Harry Lee Coe III, known as “Hangin’ Harry” for his harsh sentences, sent DuBoise to death row.

His sentence was soon reduced to life in prison. But it would be decades before his conviction came under serious scrutiny.

DuBoise in 2018 obtained the help of the Innocence Project, the New York-based legal organization whose mission is to free innocent people from prison. The Innocence Project asked the conviction review unit in the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office to examine DuBoise’s case.

DNA testing of biological samples taken during Grams’ autopsy did not match DuBoise.

The DNA was instead linked to two other men. Amos Robinson and Abron Scott were later charged and are now awaiting trial for Grams’ murder.

Both men are serving life in prison for a different murder that occurred two months after Grams was killed. They are also charged separately with the murder of Linda Lansen, a freelance photographer who was killed in July 1983.

DuBoise left prison in August 2020. He sued a year later. The defendants included Souviron, retired Tampa police Detectives Phillip Saladino and Kenneth Burke, and the city itself.

The city’s proposed settlement resolution details some of the findings that surfaced during pretrial testimony.

Souviron testified that he no longer believes bite marks can be matched to a specific person, according to the resolution.

Butler, the jailhouse informant, recanted what he’d said at the 1985 trial, according to the resolution, saying he’d been threatened by police. The detectives denied this, the resolution states.

The city denied that there was any intentional wrongdoing on the part of the Tampa Police Department or any individual police officer, the resolution states. Nevertheless, the city’s attorneys noted other wrongful conviction cases have resulted in verdicts and settlements “well in excess” of the $14 million to which they’ve agreed.

Last year, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a bill that gave DuBoise $1.85 million, or $50,000 for each year he spent wrongfully incarcerated. The bill included a provision requiring reimbursement to the state in the event that DuBoise is awarded compensation in a legal settlement.

Times staff writer Justin Garcia contributed to this report.