After two years of limited progress, legislation that would pay a Tampa man whom the state wrongly imprisoned for nearly four decades is now just two votes from approval.
The Senate Appropriations Committee overwhelmingly voted to advance a bill (SB 62) to pay $1.85 million to Robert Earl DuBoise, who spent 37 years behind bars for a 1983 rape and murder until previously untested DNA evidence exonerated him in 2020.
Last year, former Tampa State Attorney Andrew Warren, whose investigation led to DuBoise being set free, identified the real culprits as a pair of already imprisoned “serial killers.”
The compensation to DuBoise amounts to $50,000 for each year the state incarcerated him, the maximum allowable under current statutes.
DuBoise would be eligible to receive the money outright if not for a proviso unique to Florida called the “clean hands” rule, which denies payment to exonerees with more than one nonviolent felony. Legislation to delete that condition from state statutes received unanimous approval in the Senate last month and awaits a vote in the House.
But the rule stands for now and obstructs DuBoise, who had prior convictions for burglary and grand theft unrelated to the murder, from recompense. His only recourse is what is known as a claims bill, a measure intended to compensate a person for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency.
Claims bills arise when appropriate damages exceed what is allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity statutes, which shield government entities from costly lawsuits, or are blocked under the clean hands rule.
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle — including Boca Raton Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky, former Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes and former Democratic Rep. Andrew Learned — took up DuBoise’s cause in the 2021 and 2022 Legislative Sessions.
This year, Fort Pierce Republican Sen. Erin Grall is sponsoring the Senate measure. Jacksonville Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan is carrying an identical companion (HB 6005) in the House with two more committee stops left.
“I am honored (to) have the privilege to move this forward (for) Mr. DuBoise (so he) may be able to put this chapter behind (him) and move forward with some compensation,” Grall said before the 18-1 vote Thursday.
Republican Sen. Keith Perry of Gainesville voted “no.” He explained that while he believes DuBoise’s case has merit and the state’s current compensation level of $50,000 yearly is too low and, he takes exception with the claims bill process, which circumvents rather than adheres to state law, including the clean hands rule.
“I swore an oath,” he said. “We said we’re going to pass laws (and) uphold them. It doesn’t seem to me that we’re abiding by the law in this particular case or any claims case. So, that’s why I’ll be a ‘no.’”
Clearwater Republican Sen. Ed Hooper called the payment DuBoise is seeking nothing short of an insult.
“Fifty thousand dollars a year to me is almost a slap in the face, but I hope that this compensation finds you and the rest of your life — you’ll be in a position to live it to the fullest,” he said. “I can only apologize that you were incarcerated for the majority of your life.”
Grall argued Perry’s belief that claims bills circumvent Florida law is incorrect, since they too are part of the law.
“The claims bill process, as I understand it and have approached it, is an opportunity for us as the Legislature to show grace … when we know that we, as the state of Florida, have done something wrong,” she said. “And through this process, I have witness Mr. DuBoise’s grace for having been incarcerated for 37 years.”
DuBoise 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 a forensic odontologist 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 re-sentenced him to life. By that time, DuBoise had spent three years on death row within earshot of some of Florida’s most notorious killers.
In 2006, he filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. By 2018, the Innocence Project and the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) at Warren’s office began to reinvestigate the case. A lawyer at the CRU uncovered unused, preserved rape kit samples at the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office, the DNA from which exonerated DuBoise in late 2020.
Last August, Warren announced the DNA had been linked to prisoners named Amos Robinson and Abron Scott, who killed others as well. The announcement came just hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Warren for his refusal to enforce bans on abortion and gender-affirming surgery.
Since his release, DuBoise has sought reparation for his lost years. He sued the Tampa Police Department in October 2021. The outcome of that case is still pending.
In the meantime, DuBoise is trying to get his life back on track, doing handiwork and odd jobs. But it’s been difficult as many simply accomplishable tasks for most people — like renting an apartment — are tall orders for a man with such an enormous gap in his history.
“They don’t understand how I wasn’t on the radar for 37 years,” he told Florida Politics in late 2021. “It’s like I don’t even exist.”
Mark Delegal, a partner at consulting firm Delegal Aubuchon Consulting, which is working pro bono on DuBoise’s behalf, said the money DuBoise would receive can’t replace the years he lost, “but it will go a long way in helping Robert move forward with his life and pursue his dream of owning his own business.
“We’re honored to stand alongside Mr. DuBoise during this process and look forward to his next chapter,” he said.
SB 62 will next go to the Senate floor, where it may be placed on the calendar for discussion and a vote. If passed, the bill would then go to the House for consideration and a vote, after which it would go to the Governor’s desk.