A bipartisan effort is underway in the Florida Legislature to provide a former death row inmate who was wrongly imprisoned for 37 years just compensation for the time he lost behind bars.
Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Democratic Rep. Andrew Learned of Bradenton this week filed twin bills for consideration in the 2022 Legislative Session that, if approved, would clear the way for a $1.85 million payment to Robert Earl DuBoise, who in September was exonerated for the 1983 rape and murder of a young woman in Tampa.
DuBoise’s exoneration made national news last year.
Brandes and Learned’s bills are classified as “claims” bills or “relief acts,” as they are intended to compensate a person or entity for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency.
Such bills often arise when appropriate damages due to a person or entity exceeds what’s allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity laws, which protect government agencies from costly lawsuits.
Under Florida law, a wrongfully convicted person found innocent by a prosecuting attorney or administrative court judge is entitled to $50,000 for each year they spent behind bars.
But because of the state’s “clean hands” rule, which denies compensation for exonerees with more than one nonviolent felony, DuBoise is ineligible for any recompense; one year before he was charged and convicted of the crimes for which he spent three-quarters of his life at Florida State Prison in Raiford, while he was still a minor, he was convicted of burglary and grand theft and placed on probation.
DuBoise, who was 55 upon his release from prison last year, was initially sentenced to death in March 1985 for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Barbara Grams. Prosecutors used two pieces of evidence to convict him that are today considered leading causes of wrongful convictions: an apparent bite mark, which forensic odontologist Dr. Adam Freeman later concluded to not be a bite mark; and since-discredited testimony from a jailhouse informant.
The Florida Supreme Court vacated his death sentence in 1988 and resentenced him to life.
Grams’ body was found along a 2½-mile route she walked to and from work. She had been bludgeoned in the head with a wooden beam.
Police canvassed the area and spoke with people who knew her. They put together a list of nine suspects, DuBoise among them. His mother gave him an alibi, saying he was home with her at the time of Grams’ murder, and no witnesses said they had seen him out that night.
Fingerprints at the crime scene weren’t a match for DuBoise’s. Neither were hairs found on Grams’ body.
But police zeroed in on what looked like a bite mark on Grams’ left cheek. DuBois consented to providing a mold of his teeth to compare with the mark. A forensic dentist said DuBoise’s teeth matched the mark, and he was arrested.
DuBoise’s cellmate while he awaited trial, Claude Butler, testified that DuBoise has talked of sleeping with a woman, but denied murder. Butler was later offered a plea deal, received a sentence reduction to time served and immediately released after his testimony.
DuBoise always maintained his innocence. In 2006, he filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The state said all of the evidence used at his trial, including a rape kit, had been destroyed in 1990.
But in 2018, the Innocence Project and Conviction Review Unit at Tampa State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office began to reinvestigate the case, and an attorney at the CRU uncovered unused, preserved rape kit samples at the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office.
In August 2020, DNA testing of the samples excluded DuBoise, prompting the state to file a joint motion with DuBoise’s counsel to reduce his life sentence to time served.
Testing of the rape kit flagged the DNA profile of another person, unconnected to DuBoise, who is now a “person of interest” in the reopened case.
By passing Brandes and Learned’s bills, the Florida Legislature would acknowledge that “as a result of his physical confinement, Mr. DuBoise suffered significant damages that are unique to him, and that the damages are due to the fact that he was physically restrained and prevented from exercising the freedom to which all innocent citizens are entitled.”
The bills make note of DuBoise’s technical ineligibility for compensation under state law but goes on to say that “the Legislature apologizes to Mr. DuBoise on behalf of the state…”
Beyond monetary compensation, the bills also provide that tuition and fees for up to 120 hours of instruction at any career center or state college would be waived for him should he choose to enroll in classes.