On August 27, 2020, after 37 years of maintaining his innocence, Robert DuBoise was released from prison, making him Florida’s 30th death row exoneree since 1973. In 1985, Mr. DuBoise was convicted of the rape and murder of 19-year-old Barbara Grams. Earlier this year, DNA testing of evidence previously deemed destroyed excluded Mr. DuBoise as the perpetrator. On September 14, 2020, Mr. DuBoise was officially exonerated of all charges.
Mr. DuBoise’s original conviction was based on two leading causes of wrongful convictions: faulty forensic science and jailhouse informant testimony. The only physical evidence that linked Mr. DuBoise to the crime was a pattern on the victim’s face that was determined to be a bite mark. At 18 years old, Mr. DuBoise was arrested immediately after his dentition (the specific arrangement of his teeth) was said to match the injury. However, decades later, forensic odontologist Dr. Adam Freeman concluded that the injury in this case was in fact not a bite mark. At least 33 wrongful convictions have stemmed from flawed bite mark analysis, and its broad use is now being rejected by the scientific community and the National Academy of Sciences. The American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) has also revised its standards to clarify, “an ABFO Diplomate shall not express conclusions unconditionally linking a bite mark to a dentition.”
The other piece of evidence came from a jailhouse informant who falsely alleged that Mr. DuBoise had made statements implicating himself in the crime. At the time, the informant was facing a potential life sentence. Though the informant denied receiving any benefits for his testimony, he was offered a plea deal and sentenced to five years after providing a sworn statement implicating Mr. DuBoise. After testifying against Mr. DuBoise, the informant received a further sentence reduction to time served and was immediately released, with Mr. DuBoise’s prosecutor filing a motion to mitigate the sentence that cited his “total cooperation” with the State in Mr. DuBoise’s trial.
In March 1985, Mr. DuBoise’s jury unanimously recommended a life sentence, but the trial judge overrode the recommendation and sentenced Mr. DuBoise to death. After three years on death row, the Florida Supreme Court vacated his death sentence and resentenced him to life, concluding that the jury received proper instruction as to non-statutory mitigating factors and the trial court should have followed the jury’s recommendation. Today, no state allows a trial judge to overrule a jury’s unanimous recommendation for life.
In 2006, Mr. DuBoise filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The State responded that all the evidence used at trial, including the rape kit, had been destroyed in 1990. In 2018, the Innocence Project, joined by the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) at the Office of the State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa the following year, began reinvestigating the case. An attorney at the CRU found unused, preserved rape kit samples at the Medical Examiner's Office in August 2020, and DNA testing of the samples excluded Mr. DuBoise. The State then filed a joint motion with Mr. DuBoise’s counsel to reduce his life sentence to time served. State Attorney Andrew Warren, who created the CRU in 2018, said that there is “not one shred of evidence” that Mr. DuBoise committed the crime. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Nash agreed, granting the motion to release Mr. DuBoise from prison and stating that there appears to be no remaining factual or legal basis to support Mr. Duboise’s conviction.
The DNA profile in the rape kit did identify another individual, unconnected to Mr. DuBoise, as a “major contributor.” That individual is a person of interest in the now-reopened investigation.
In response to the case, the CRU and the Innocence Project have announced they will be launching an audit of all Hillsborough County cases that relied on bite mark evidence in order to secure convictions. This effort is the first systematic review of bite mark cases ever to be undertaken by a prosecutor’s office.
Mr. DuBoise is ineligible to receive any compensation for his 37 years of wrongful incarceration due to previous convictions of minor offenses including possession of a stolen bike and entering a vacant, unlocked house. Florida is the only state that disqualifies exonerees from compensation based on convictions for unrelated crimes.
Upon his release, the 55-year-old Mr. DuBoise said, “I never lost faith that today would come. Now the world knows DNA proves I did not commit this crime. To walk out of this nightmare and hug my mother and sister after almost four decades, knowing I was innocent is bittersweet. I can never regain the birthdays, holidays and precious time I lost with them, nevermind the life I could have made for myself. I am grateful to be here, now with a chance to move forward, but I know there are more innocent people like me still behind bars.”