How Tampa Bay Buccaneers are Helping Man Wrongfully Imprisoned for 37 Years

Robert DuBoise stands outside his new home in Tampa, where he’s lived since he was released from prison on Aug. 27. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Time and freedom, together, are essential to form a desirable human existence. The system robbed Robert DuBoise of both and left him with nothing.

For 37 years, a man spent his days in prison for a crime he did not commit. Such a tale is far too common in the United States’ current legal system. Such an experience would break any person, even the strongest. DuBoise instead repaired the very edifices that imprisoned him, while pursuing justice.

On Monday night, the Tampa, Florida, native will watch from the stands as the Buccaneers host the Los Angeles Rams, completing his journey from death row to freedom. He’ll enter the stadium as a special guest of the Bucs and walk – unsupervised, wrists unshackled, feet unbound – to his seat in Section 118, accompanied by three guests.

There he fell into the embraces of his mother, Myra, and his sister, Harriett. Susan Friedman, his lawyer at the Innocence Project — the non-profit legal organization that exonerates wrongfully convicted individuals — broke into a smile so big it could be seen despite her wearing a mask. Friedman and DuBoise went to CVS that night for toiletries and to Target the next day for more living supplies. Less than three weeks later, the courts fully exonerated DuBoise of all charges.

“Everything was like it is now,” DuBoise said. “Beautiful.”

The case

The night of Aug. 18, 1983, 19-year-old Barbara Grams was raped and murdered in Tampa. DuBoise, then 18, and his friends often hung out at, a grocer near the scene of the crime (although Myra would testify that DuBoise was home that evening). Investigators found what they believed to be a bite mark on Grams’ cheek and began asking men of interest, including DuBoise, to make beeswax molds of their mouths to determine whether there was a match. A forensic dentist identified DuBoise as the one who left the mark on Grams. No other DNA evidence — fingerprints, hair, etc. — placed DuBoise at the crime scene. As DuBoise awaited trial, an inmate at Hillsborough County Jail named Claude Butler told a detective that DuBoise allegedly spoke of sex with a woman but denied killing her.

The verdict: guilty of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery. While the jury unanimously recommended life in prison, a judge condemned DuBoise to death.

“Robert was only 18 when he went to prison,” Friedman told USA TODAY Sports. “He basically went from high school to death row. It’s unconscionable what happened to him, based on the evidence that the prosecution had.”

He spent three years on death row. Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy had a cell near his during that time. DuBoise wasn’t afraid of dying, but would wake up every day hoping it was all a bad dream.

The nightmare continued instead. As time passed, DuBoise’s sole focus became proving his innocence. His case remained in the hands of the public defender’s office, which concentrated its efforts on removing DuBoise from death row. In 1988, DuBoise was removed from death row, but the life sentence plus 15 years still attached to his name disturbed DuBoise. He was upset by what he saw as a half-measure — that they didn’t pursue freedom on his behalf.

DuBoise sent letters to every media outlet he thought would find his story intriguing, including 20/20, 60 Minutes and 48 Hours. He never received a response. Somebody recommended he read “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham. The book taught him about the Innocence Project. He wrote to them and finally received a correspondence.

The letter

The parole hearings routinely went poorly. DuBoise would be asked to explain the case. He would be asked about remorse.

“I can’t tell you I’m remorseful for something I didn’t do,” DuBoise would always say. The hearing would then abruptly end.

When he left the room following his meeting in 2018, he pressed his palms together in prayer and said, “God, I put it in your hands.”

The next morning, May 17, he opened Friedman’s letter, which contained positive news for DuBoise.

Finally, someone aside from his fellow inmates had listened: Friedman and the Innocence Project would take the case.

Two tell-tale signs of a wrongful conviction revealed themselves to Friedman: flawed evidence analysis and an unreliable informant. First, the use of bite marks as a reliable form of DNA evidence has been “debunked,” the attorney said. According to analysis by the Innocence Project, at least 26 people nationally have been wrongfully convicted based on bite mark evidence, and a National Institutes of Health study from 2017 notes the intrinsic difference between bite mark comparison and bite mark analysis within the legal system.

Friedman says DuBoise’s outlook on life is typical of an exoneree.

“I think one of the things that I’ve learned in the close to 10 years I’ve been doing this work is that people who have been wrongfully convicted, like Robert, they are all incredibly patient,” she said. “I always say I learn so much from each of them about patience and kindness and forgiveness.”

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SOURCE: USA Today, Chris Bumbaca

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