Robert Earl DuBoise, who spent 37 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, including three years on death row, will receive $50,000 for every year he lost.
That amounts to $1.85 million — a sum many would say is a pittance for the time stolen from him.
But it’s perhaps enough to help him gain footing and purpose in a world that in many ways passed him by.
The House voted unanimously, 105-0, for a measure (SB 62) clearing the payment to DuBoise, who sat close to motionless as those advocating for his recompense pleaded their case.
He arrived at House chambers early in the morning and waited until close to 6 p.m. to observe the vote, which was far from a sure thing; legislative attempts in two prior Sessions to compensate him failed despite his more than sympathetic case.
DuBoise was convicted of a 1983 rape and murder that DNA evidence cleared him of less than three years ago.
Since then, he’s worked to make the best of the time he has left, doing handiwork and odd jobs. He dreams of starting his own business. But with little money on which to get by and a nearly 40-year absence from society, it’s been difficult.
Many tasks simple for most people, like renting an apartment, have proven 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. “It’s like I don’t even exist.”
DuBoise would have been 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 conviction. Legislation to delete that provision from state statute received unanimous approval in the Senate last month and awaits a vote in the House.
But the rule stands for now and for DuBoise, who had prior convictions for burglary and grand theft unrelated to the murder, his only recourse was 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. As such, claimants like DuBoise are at the mercy of the Legislature.
Lawmakers delivered that mercy Friday. The bill is effective with or without the Governor’s signature.
“The judicial system did its part. They overturned his conviction. They set him free. We have a part to play, and this is it,” said Vero Beach Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan, who with Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Kimberly Daniels sponsored a House version of the bill.
They substituted their measure for one Fort Pierce Republican Sen. Erin Grall carried through the upper chamber.
“There is a higher law that requires that we seek justice and mercy,” Duggan continued, addressing his fellow legislators. “No matter how many bills you run, no matter how many votes you take, with this vote you will know that in one moment of sublime grace, you have fulfilled both of those obligations to Mr. DuBoise.”
Duggan’s speech and the subsequent unanimous vote both triggered applause on the House floor and prompted DuBoise to stand and acknowledge the moment with a nod and faint smile from the West Gallery, where he sat with his lawyers.
DuBoise was initially sentenced to death in March 1985 for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Barbara Grams. He was 18. 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 not to 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 former State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office began to reinvestigate the case. A lawyer at the CRU uncovered preserved, previously untested 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, whom he described as “serial killers.” The announcement came just hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Warren for saying he would not enforce restrictive Florida laws 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.
Speaking about the extraordinary case, Duggan described how Warren’s efforts, alongside the Innocence Project of Florida and others, led to DuBoise being set free, though Duggan never mentioned Warren by name.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan, there have been 85 people in Florida who have been proven innocent and exonerated of the crime for which they were convicted since 1989. DuBoise marks just the fourth such person to receive compensation through the Legislature, Daniels said.
“The money that’s given in no way makes up for the years, months, days, minutes and moments lost,” she said. “But it is my prayer that for the 37 years that Mr. DuBoise experienced (that) this will give him some relief and at least he can take a deep breath.”