TAMPA, Fla. — The Sunny Center is one of the only places in the entire country available to people who have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated for the crime. It’s where Robert DuBoise lives.
Clemente Augirra used to live there, too. After he was released in 2018, if this place didn’t exist, “I would be homeless, living under a bridge or something,” he said.
Both of them will tell you vindication of a wrongful conviction is all they could think about in prison but outside it’s not enough.
“Once you get out of there, reality hits you. You don’t have clothes, you don’t have an ID, you don’t have health care, mental help, or no money,” Augirra said.
Clemente and Robert both struggle to make ends meet. Robert has picked up handyman work and finds jobs by word of mouth, but after he lost 37 years of his life behind bars he has no foundation.
“Even trying to rent an apartment considering you don’t have an actual paystub, you don’t have an actual job as far as they’re concerned because you can’t show proof of income," Robert said.
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Robert was accused, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Barbara Grams in 1983. The Innocence Project and the state attorney's office worked together to get him out once DNA proved he didn’t do it.
Clemente spent nearly 15 years in prison after he was sentenced to death for the murder of his two neighbors. The Innocence Project was there for him, too, and he was also exonerated.
“Florida is one of those many states in the US that has a law that says if we wrongfully convicted you and you get exonerated we should pay you money equivalent to the amount of time you were wrongfully convicted for,” said Nathaniel Erb, a Policy Advocate for the Innocence Project.
For Clemente, that’s more than $700,000. For Robert, it would be more than $1.8 million but, because of stipulations in the law, both will get nothing.
The state gives someone 90 days to apply for compensation from the day a judge vacates the sentence. In Clemente’s case, the state retried him and which made him ineligible for the money.
“They make it so difficult. It’s so easy to put you in there, but it’s so difficult for you to get any compensation or any kind of remorse from them,” he said.
“That timeline, I mean it’s just not practical, and the way the process goes, if we’re going to allow the state attorney to retry, then the window is too short,” said State Representative Traci Koster, who represents District 64.
The state also bars someone from getting compensation if they are convicted of a crime prior to their wrongful conviction — it’s called the “clean hands” provision. When Robert was a teenager, he was charged with burglary and grand theft and he was sentenced to probation.
“If you look back and you think about all of this stuff, do you think about the fact that I did the probation, I did the community work hours for the police athletic league no less, and what does it matter? If the debt was paid,” he said.
It’s why the Innocence Project continues to push lawmakers to extend the application time frame from 90 days to 2 years and get rid of the clean hands provision. These changes would be retroactive so Clemente and Robert could be paid.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue to show their support, too.
“You see my name Robert Dubois,” said Robert, as he showed off the cleats Offensive Tackle Donovan Smith took off his feet during Sunday’s game and handed over to Robert.
On the strap is the senate bill number and the number of years Robert was wrongfully incarcerated.
In 2021 after seeing an article ABC Action News reporter Heather Leigh wrote about Robert and his lack of compensation, several offensive linemen chose him to be a focus of their social justice initiative. They paid off his truck and took him to the Super Bowl. But, above all, they befriended him.
“Listen if they never did anything else for me, they’ve done enough as far as I’m concerned,” DuBoise said. They’re just a bunch of good guys.”
In 2020, the bill passed through legislative committees unanimously but died before it could get to the house and senate floor. It’s back for the 2022 legislative session. Representative Koster helped file it.
“We as a state, if we don’t get it right the first time, then we need to make it right,” she said.
Koster believes the support in Tallahassee and on the football field will be enough for it to finally get passed.
For context, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 78 people exonerated in Florida since 1989. The Innocence Project could only identify 5 people who have been compensated under the state's compensation law.
If the bill passes, 15 people would become eligible including Robert & Clemente. Altogether, these 15 spent over 236 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. We’ll be sure to follow the progress of the bill, and give you updates as we learn them.