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HRDC Wins $14 Million Settlement for Exonerated Florida Prisoner

On February 15, 2024, the Tampa City Council approved a $14 million settlement with Robert DuBoise, 59, a man who spent 37 years wrongfully imprisoned for a 1983 rape and murder he didn’t commit thanks to the two leading causes of wrongful convictions: junk forensic science and false testimony from a jailhouse “snitch.” In his suit to hold the city to account, DuBoise was represented by PLN’s publisher, the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center, along with attorneys from Loevy & Loevy in Chicago.

DuBoise was 18 when Barbara Grams, who was a year older, was raped and murdered while walking home from work at a shopping mall. Tampa Police Department (TPD) detectives focused on DuBoise, who had worked at the same store; however, he had quit six months before Grams started. But that wasn’t the only head-scratching move detectives made. Fingerprint and hair analysis also excluded DuBoise as a suspect.

Then the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, Dr. Lee Miller, found a “bitemark” on the victim’s cheek and cut it out, placing it in formaldehyde—which rendered it forensically useless. Nevertheless, forensic odontologist Dr. Richard A. Souviron asked for dental impressions of DuBoise to make a comparison with this “evidence.”

Detectives were instructed to look for a gap between DuBoise’s front teeth. Having no such gap and sure of his innocence, DuBoise cooperated when dental molds were made—not by a professional but by Detective K.E. Burke and his wife. Lacking training, they used beeswax, which is unreliably soft for making dental impressions. Yet based on their work, Dr. Souviron testified that DuBoise made the “bitemark”—which was later found not to be a bitemark at all, making this one of at least 33 U.S. convictions later overturned in which such discredited “evidence” played a role.

Detectives also got jailhouse informant Claude Butler to claim DuBoise confessed while the two were held at the Hillsborough County Jail. A jury convicted DuBoise, and Hillsborough County Judge “Hangin Harry” Lee Coe ignored its recommended life sentence, sending him to the state’s death row in 1985. When the state Supreme Court found that was error and vacated his death sentence three years later, DuBoise was resentenced to life.

An attempt to get the evidence against him tested for his DNA failed in 2006, when TPD said it had been destroyed. A dozen years later, the Innocence Project took up his case in 2018. The next year, the new Conviction Review Unit established by then-Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren (D) got involved. Grams’ “lost” rape kit was located, including a vaginal sample with semen. A DNA test excluded DuBoise as her rapist, and his conviction was tossed on September 14, 2020. Admitted Judge Christopher Nash to DuBoise: “This court has failed you for 37 years.”

The jury that originally convicted him never heard how prosecutors moved to cut Butler’s sentence to time served just two months after he testified against DuBoise. That was a “significant benefit” that would have impugned his testimony, a Special Master reported to the state Senate. Lawmakers then voted to compensate DuBoise $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) approved the $1.85 million payment on June 9, 2023.

With the help of HRDC and Loevy & Loevy attorneys Jon Loevy, Gayle Horn, Heather Lewis Donnell and John Hazinski, DuBoise filed suit in federal court for the Middle District of Florida, accusing Souviron and three TPD detectives or their estates—Burke, Phillip Saladino and John Counsman, who was dead by then—as well as supervising Sgt. R.H. Price of conspiring to violate his civil rights. The resulting payout for DuBoise included costs and fees for his attorneys. See: DuBoise v. City of Tampa, USDC (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 8:21-cv-02328.

HRDC has published PLN since 1990 and Criminal Legal News since 2017. Though a small nonprofit with limited resources, it can provide representation to prisoners, provided their criminal convictions have been reversed and they are seeking money damages for their time spent wrongfully imprisoned.  

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Related legal case

DuBoise v. City of Tampa