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Man who spent 37 years in prison for 1983 Tampa murder to be freed due to DNA evidence

Posted at 1:51 PM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-27 10:07:52-04

TAMPA, Fla. — A motion filed by Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren to free a man wrongfully convicted of a 1983 murder and attempted rape in Tampa was granted by a judge on Thursday morning.

Robert DuBoise is set to be released from prison sometime on Thursday after spending 37 years behind bars.

An 11-month investigation by the Conviction Review Unit of the State Attorney’s Office, in collaboration with the Innocence Project, has determined DuBoise did not commit the crimes for which he was convicted. The motion for DuBoise’s release after nearly 37 years behind bars is based on newly discovered DNA evidence, once thought to be lost.

“Wrongful convictions erode the foundation of our justice system. For 37 years, we’ve had an innocent man locked up in prison—while the real perpetrator was never held accountable for this heinous crime,” State Attorney Warren said. “The family of the victim, Barbara Grams, deserves to have the truth, and this new evidence helps reveal that truth to all of us.”

In September 2019, the Innocence Project submitted a petition to the Conviction Review Unit (CRU), on behalf of DuBoise, a 55-year-old man incarcerated at Hardee Correctional Institution.

Forensic DNA testing was not advanced enough in 1983 for use in prosecution, so rape kit samples recovered from the victim were collected and stored away. Evidence stored from DuBoise’s trial was presumed to have been destroyed in 1990, making new DNA testing seemingly impossible. However, in August 2020, in the course of her thorough review of the case, CRU Supervising Attorney Teresa Hall was able to locate rape kit samples that were not used during the trial, still intact, at the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office. The samples were retrieved, and the CRU and Innocence Project sent them for DNA testing.

The results showed that DuBoise's DNA was not present in the samples. The results identified DNA from two other men—one classified as a “major contributor,” and one classified as a “minor contributor.” One of the men, the major contributor of DNA, has been identified and is a person of interest in an ongoing investigation, the State Attorney's Office said. They say the person of interest poses no threat to public safety in our community.

The evidence used to originally convict DuBoise at his trial was very limited and highly unreliable, authorities said. The only physical evidence placing him at the scene was a supposed bitemark on the victim’s face that an expert claimed matched DuBoise. The scientific community now considers bitemark evidence unreliable in identifying perpetrators in criminal cases such as this, and a current expert has determined the injury was not, in fact, a bitemark at all.

“Despite all the safeguards in our system, when science tells us we have convicted the wrong person, we must listen and act,” Warren said. “It’s time to right a wrong that dates back 37 years. I apologize to Mr. DuBoise on behalf of the entire justice system. We can’t give him back the time he’s lost, but from the moment we learned of this case, my CRU worked diligently to research the facts, find the truth, and request his release. A prosecutor’s job is to seek justice, and that obligation to seek justice never ends.”

Innocence Project attorney Susan Friedman represents DuBoise and has worked for years on his case, uncovering compelling evidence of his innocence. One piece of evidence included an expert opinion that the injury on the victim was not a bitemark, and a second showed that the jailhouse informant who testified against DuBoise was not credible, officials say.

The jailhouse informant testified that DuBoise told him two other men had murdered the victim while DuBoise raped her. The Innocence Project discovered significant inconsistencies in his original testimony. The new DNA evidence now clearly refutes the informant’s testimony; the DNA does not match any of the three men that the informant said were involved in the rape and murder, the State Attorney's Office says.

“Robert has spent more than 36 years in prison because of discredited bitemark evidence and the testimony of an unreliable jailhouse informant. The presence of DNA from two other people is indisputable scientific proof that he is innocent. Robert has spent decades determined to show that he was wrongfully convicted, and we are eager to see him fully exonerated. We are thankful that the CRU joined us in this effort to seek justice for Robert, the victim, and their families,” Friedman said.

The State and defense are handling the process in two steps. The hearing on Thursday reduced DuBoise’s sentence to equal the amount of time he has already served behind bars. This will allow him to be promptly released from prison. After he has been released, The Innocence Project and CRU will pursue a more complex and time-consuming “3.850 motion” in the coming weeks, asking the court to completely reverse his conviction and exonerate him.