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HRDC Represents Wrongfully Convicted Florida Man Who Spent 37 Years in Prison for a Rape Murder He Did Not Commit

by Chuck Sharman

A Florida man who spent 37 years in prison on a wrongful rape murder conviction filed a federal lawsuit on October 4, 2021, against the Tampa Police Department (TPD) officers who mishandled his prosecution, along with the city and a forensic odontologist who provided “expert” bite mark testimony—which was later debunked—at his trial.

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC)—a Florida nonprofit that has published Prison Legal News since 1990 and Criminal Legal News since 2017—is providing representation in the suit filed by 56-year-old Robert DuBoise. He was convicted of the brutal August 1983 rape and murder of Barbara Grams while the nineteen-year-old was walking home from work at a store in a Tampa shopping mall.

TPD detectives zeroed in on DuBoise, then just 18, because he had allegedly been a problem employee at the same store—although he left six months before Grams started her tenure there. Fingerprint and hair analysis excluded him as a suspect, but police still pinned the case on DuBoise.

Worse, TPD Detectives Phillip Saladino, K.E. Burke and John Counsman—who are named in the suit—abandoned the search for Grams’s murderer as soon as a supposed “bitemark” was found on her cheek by then-Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, Dr. Lee Miller.

Miller cut it out of the victim’s face and placed it in formaldehyde, rendering it forensically useless. Yet Dr. Richard A. Souviron, a forensic odontologist also named in the lawsuit, was called in to examine the bitemark as “evidence.” Souviron asked for dental impressions to be taken of the suspect, instructing the detectives that they were looking for a gap between his front teeth.

DuBoise has no such gap. Convinced of his own innocence, he cooperated in the making of beeswax molds of his teeth—by Detective Burke and his wife, who had no training, the suit notes. Beeswax is also an unreliably soft medium for making dental impressions, the suit further claims. Nevertheless, Dr. Souviron told the detectives that they had found their man, and DuBoise was arrested and charged.

At trial, Dr. Souviron testified that this “evidence” proved DuBoise had made the alleged bitemark. In fact, the suit notes, the bitemark was not made by a human at all. The three detectives also suborned false testimony from a pair of “jailhouse snitches” held with DuBoise at the Hillsborough County Jail, the suit claims. In exchange for promises of leniency, Claude Butler and Jack Andruskiewiecz claimed that DuBoise confessed to them that he murdered Grams.

Based on this, a jury convicted DuBoise and the court sentenced him to death. He was originally placed on death row, but his sentence was converted to a life term in 1988. After a long legal struggle led by the Innocence Project, he was exonerated and released in 2020, when a slide with a vaginal sample with semen from Grams’s body was found, and a DNA test excluded him as her rapist.

Florida has a compensation fund for victims of wrongful convictions, which would pay DuBoise $2 million for the 37 years of his life he spent locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. But the 2008 law contains a “clean hands” provision that bars collection from the fund by anyone with a prior violent felony conviction or multiple nonviolent felony convictions.

DuBoise ran afoul of the clean hands provision thanks to a four-year probation sentence he got at age 17 for burglary and grand theft, after cops found him in a car that he didn’t own and charged him as an adult for stealing gasoline, hubcaps, an extension cord and a claw hammer.

He could possibly appeal directly to the state legislature, which has approved some compensation for a few other victims of wrongful imprisonment denied for lack of “clean hands.” Of the 31 people exonerated since the law was passed in 2008, only five collected the money they are owed. The rest have been barred by the “clean hands” provision or another that places a 90-day-limit on filing a claim—even if the exoneree is still in prison awaiting release.

“It’s really cruel,” notes the Innocence Project’s Florida Campaign Director, Michelle Feldman, who says a person’s prior conviction “is often what puts them on law enforcement’s radar in the first place.”

So DuBoise’s suit asks the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida to hold Dr. Souviron to account, along with the three TPD detectives or their estates—Counsman has since died—for their alleged conspiracy to convict him based on the bogus “bitemark” evidence and reported confessions. In addition, the suit names the detectives’ supervisor, TPD Sgt. R.H. Price, as well as the city.

Providing counsel, along with HRDC litigation director Dan Marshall and HRDC staff attorney Jesse Isom, are four attorneys from the Chicago firm of Loevy & Loevy: Jon Loevy, Gayle Horn, Heather Lewis Donnell and John Hazinski. See: Robert DuBoise v. City of Tampa et al, USDC (M. D. Fla.), Case No. 8-21-cv-02328.

HRDC has limited resources and can only provide representation to prisoners who have been wrongly convicted of a crime, and have had their criminal convictions reversed and are seeking money damages for the time spent in prison or jail as a result of the wrongful conviction. HRDC litigates cases nationally. 


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Related legal case

Robert DuBoise v. City of Tampa et al