ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – After 37 years behind bars, a Florida man was formally cleared Monday of a 1983 rape and murder that DNA evidence proved he did not commit after a long-ago trial that relied on a sketchy jailhouse informant and faulty bite mark analysis.
Robert DuBoise was released from prison last month. A hearing before Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Christopher Nash resulted in an order wiping away the previous convictions and life sentence, and also removing DuBoise from the state's sex offender registry.
“This court has failed you for 37 years,” Nash said during the hearing, held remotely. “Today, it has finally succeeded.”
DuBoise, 55, was convicted in the 1983 murder of 19-year-old Barbara Grams. She had been raped and beaten while walking home from her job at a Tampa mall. He was initially sentenced to death, then resentenced to life in prison.
Expert testimony at Monday's hearing showed that bite mark evidence on the victim's left cheek used in his trial has now been determined to be unreliable — police used beeswax to take an impression of DuBoise's teeth — and that DNA showed conclusively that he was eliminated as a suspect in the assault of Grams.
The jailhouse informant's testimony also has subsequently been discredited.
“It's been 37 years,” said Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren. “We're righting this wrong today, finally.”
The exoneration came as a result of cooperation between prosecutors in Warren's office and the Innocence Project, which works to free prisoners who have been wrongly convicted. Susan Friedman, the Innocence Project lawyer who represents DuBoise, said he consistently maintained his innocence even as he languished on Death Row initially and then often in solitary confinement on a journey through six Florida prisons.
“The state took 37 years away from Robert,” Friedman said.
In brief remarks during the hearing, DuBoise, who was only 18 at the time of the crime, said he hasn't always trusted the judicial system “because I've had a lot of roadblocks thrown in my path.”
“There are really true-hearted people in these offices now,” added DuBoise, dressed in a suit and tie he just recently got. “It's been amazing. I'm just very grateful to all of you.”
The hearing Monday came after DuBoise was released Aug. 27 from the Hardee Correctional Instituition in central Florida, where he was reunited with his mother and sister. He has since been living in a Tampa center that provides housing for people who were wrongfully imprisoned and has said he must learn the ways of modern life, from shopping at a Walmart to using an iPhone.
Warren, the chief prosecutor, said his office is undertaking a review with the Innocence Project of cases in the Tampa area in which convictions relied heavily on now-discredited bite mark evidence.
“This won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Wrongful convictions deprive victims and their families of justice; they deserve the truth—not false closure based on a false story. Beyond that, wrongful convictions threaten public safety, putting an innocent person behind bars while the actual person who committed the crime goes free,” Warren said in a news release.
Forensic DNA analyst Nancy Wilson said at the hearing that she concluded two people were involved in the Grams assault, neither of them DuBoise. Given that, the killing of the teenager 37 years ago will return to the unsolved file.
“It was a mixture of at least two individuals,” Wilson said of her DNA analysis. “Robert DuBoise is eliminated as a contributor to any of the evidence.”