The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (2024)

An innocent man’s exoneration after 37 years in prison revealed a rash of serial killings in 1983 Tampa.

Table of contents

  • A Life, Cast Into Chaos

  • Surviving a Death Sentence

  • Who Killed Barbara Grams?

  • After Prison, a Search for a Good Life

  • About the story

Loading the Elevenlabs Text to Speech AudioNative Player...

A teen goes on trial in a sensational murder case hinging on a bite mark.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (1)

The maintenance man climbed to the country club roof at dawn. As he reattached a loose panel to a leaking air duct last fall, the placid fairways glowed, and his mind went back years — to another rooftop, another brief moment of peace, when he’d gazed out at a vista of razor wire. Back then, while laboring in prison blues, he’d called out to his boss for a tool. A guard threw him in solitary confinement for raising his voice.

Most of Robert DuBoise’s memories go something like that.

These days, DuBoise walks carpeted hallways in orthopedic work boots, carrying his ladder. Members of Ardea Country Club in Oldsmar see a sweet 59-year-old with puffy eyes and a grin. “How are you today?” he asks in his froggy voice. “Is there anything I can do?” They may have heard about his 37 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but few know how his unlikely freedom intertwines with a bigger Tampa saga.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (2)

DuBoise’s 2020 exoneration in a single murder and rape case revealed what authorities call a vicious spree of serial killings, the links between them buried in case files and a morgue cabinet for decades.

When he walked free, much lay ahead: his bid for compensation, a search for the true killers, a political power struggle — and the question of how to salvage what was left of his life.

Yet DuBoise doesn’t complain. Stuck in traffic, he smiles: “I’m grateful to even be sitting at a red light.” He possesses what a judge called “an uncommon capacity for grace and forgiveness.” Pressed on the matter, however, he eventually relents.

“Just because I have a good attitude,” he said, “does not mean I’m not mad about what was done to me.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (3)

Home after a long workday last year, DuBoise leaned back on his faux-leather loveseat. He gazed off, seemingly beyond the bounds of his one-room efficiency with its twin bed against the wall, positioned just like in prison. People kept telling him his story mattered. If that were so, he wanted it told in its entirety.

His name was clear. But he was still living like he had something to prove.

TAMPA, 1983

An 18-year-old Robert DuBoise pedaled his 10-speed across the city at twilight. From the red-brick Seminole Heights rental where he lived with his family of seven, he streaked past Cuban cafes, bars and trailer parks along the shoulder of Hillsborough Avenue to his job at Noel’s Auto Upholstery near Town ‘N Country. His long, dark hair blew in the warm wind and auto exhaust.

The kid was a worker, had been ever since he’d dragged a lawnmower up the street at age 8 to bring cash home. He’d dropped out his sophom*ore year but could fix nearly anything, an almost preternatural ability he’d honed alongside a handy father who’d been paralyzed after slipping in a meat freezer.

“I was his hands,” DuBoise said. “We couldn’t pay someone to fix things.”

After a long day at the shop, DuBoise would load his bike into a coworker’s trunk. At his friend’s apartment, they’d share dinner — taking turns holding his friend’s baby. DuBoise saw possibilities.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (4)

He’d always been a bit of a romantic. At 13, he’d had a cousin ink an older girl’s initials on his forearm and the name of her little daughter on his bicep with a homemade tattoo gun. Even as a kid he dreamed of a wife and children.

DuBoise’s own family was close. He had a brother and four sisters. From 14 on, he did the driving, with everyone piling in for errands. While his mother shopped for bologna and instant mashed potatoes, his dad and grandma read the Tampa Tribune in the car.

On top of the family’s government assistance, DuBoise used his pay from odd jobs and the upholstery shop to help provide. Sometimes, they ate rice from the church pantry. When the rent went up, they moved. It was a modest life. He counted on little more.

They knew tragedy — their father’s crippling fall, a 2-year-old sister’s sudden death, their Ballast Point home’s destruction in a spectacular fire. An older sister claimed “a dark cloud” followed the family. She ran away at 15, alleging abuse by an uncle and violent discipline at the hands of her grandmother.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (5)

When DuBoise was 17, a sheriff’s deputy caught him and a friend sitting on a car hood in a Brandon apartment complex. A hose dangled from the gas tank of a Ranchero, with gasoline siphoning into a bucket. A stolen toolbox and extension cord sat nearby. DuBoise fessed up.

His mom, Myra, worried about her son running with an iffy crowd, like an older guy who’d been busted for drugs. She knew they killed time at a sleazy motel on Hillsborough Avenue and a service station in a rough stretch of town.

One night, DuBoise and his family dropped off his little sister at Tampa Skating Center. His favorite station, Q105-FM, had been playing The Police’s new single nonstop. “Every breath you take,” sang Sting, “I’ll be watching you.”

In the parking lot, a middle-aged Tampa police detective strode over. Phillip Saladino knew the family from patrolling their old South Tampa neighborhood. He peered in, past DuBoise’s father, toward the teenager. Maybe, he suggested, DuBoise could help him with an investigation?

DuBoise didn’t know he could say no. What he also didn’t know was that Saladino had been looking for him. A woman about his age had been found dead behind a dentist’s office — stripped, raped and beaten. Police had no clear suspects, but a gas station clerk near the scene had pointed to DuBoise as part of a group known to “cause problems.”

THE BOOMING ‘80S

Freshly paved neighborhoods sprouted where swamps and orange groves once stood. Out-of-towners bought up suburban Carrollwood and Brandon, while hotels multiplied along West Shore Boulevard. Anchoring the sprawling region was Tampa, a hardscrabble port town shaped by its Latin heritage and a belief that the city could be something greater.

Amid all the ribbon cuttings, violent crime surged. By mid-1983, local cops and prosecutors were inundated with murder cases.

Barbara Grams lived close to downtown, a 19-year-old with lots of friends. She worked a fast food job at the Tampa Bay Center mall, taking it seriously enough to report an employee for stealing from the register — though not so seriously that she didn’t slip free baked potatoes to her friends. Her boss noticed she hung out with “acid rocker types.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (6)

Late that August, as the skylights darkened, Grams wound down a shift at the Hot Potato, spooning cheese sauce and turkey cubes onto steaming spuds.

She clocked out past 9 p.m., after workers rolled down security cages and exited past the dormant carousel and the “Risky Business” movie poster with Tom Cruise peering over his Ray-Bans.

She stepped into the warm Tampa air, a thin braid swinging in her loose brown hair.

Grams had moved out of her parents’ place a couple of years earlier. She shared a home with three male roommates and their mom in Riverside Heights. Wanting the exercise, she’d declined a ride from one of her housemates who’d stopped by for a plate. She was taking amphetamine diet pills, “black beauties,” worried about her figure.

She crossed the mall parking lot with the Buccaneers’ sombrero-shaped stadium at her back. She wore a pink tube top, toting her work clothes in a County Seat shopping bag. She passed dark offices and glowing storefronts, crossed the Hillsborough River and turned onto North Boulevard, her street.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (7)

She kept away from Memorial Park Cemetery. The gravestones creeped her out, especially after dark.

Friends making a run for sodas and cigarettes at Hutto’s Corner Grocery honked when they spotted her, but she waved them off. She was four blocks from home.

When they doubled back minutes later, she was gone.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (8)

The next morning, Saladino and Kenneth Burke, another veteran investigator, stood at an autopsy table, looking over the young woman’s battered body.

A medical examiner pointed to a semicircular mark over Grams’ left cheekbone. It looked like a bite.

UNDER SCRUTINY

Thirty-nine days after Grams was found, the detective picked up DuBoise on a weekend morning. Downtown in the empty detective division, Saladino handed the teenager a yellow block. DuBoise bit down, feeling gooey beeswax press against his tongue and cheeks, like thick Jell-O.

Years later, DuBoise would testify that they passed two young women on a sidewalk as Saladino drove him home from the station.

“Blondes or brunettes?” he recalled the detective asking.

“What does it matter?” DuBoise replied.

Detectives had been busy collecting wax tooth impressions from more than a dozen of Grams’ acquaintances and other men. Improvising, they had a mouthpiece fashioned at a high school’s machine shop, to use with beeswax from a police captain’s hive. They sent the results to a dentist they’d enlisted to seek a match.

Everywhere DuBoise went in the following days, it seemed Saladino had been there first. He’d questioned people at the upholstery shop and the Journey’s End bar where DuBoise shot pool. DuBoise tried calling to see what was up, but Saladino brushed him off.

Not long after, the dentist notified detectives that he’d found a match.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (9)

On Friday, Oct. 21, DuBoise accepted an invite from Joanne “Josie” Suarez to go bar hopping. He’d met Suarez earlier that year when she nearly ran him over in a bar parking lot. She was four years older and dressed differently than the people he knew, like someone on TV. She was still recovering from a violent car crash that left her scarred and taking a lot of prescription painkillers, but DuBoise liked her.

To her, DuBoise was just some strange, poor kid she let hang around. “A lowlife,” she said years later.

Closing in on DuBoise, police approached Suarez. Your pal killed someone, she remembers them telling her. You need to help us bring him in.

DuBoise didn’t know he was being led to his arrest when he rented one of the Peter Pan Motel’s rickety rooms off Hillsborough Avenue before their night out, hoping Suarez would come back with him. Around 2 a.m., after stopping at one last bar, he drove Suarez there. They’d just gotten inside when the police knocked.

Years later, DuBoise testified that the officers claimed his mother was in trouble. Come with us, they’d said.

Confused, he went. An officer sat with him in a sergeant’s office, chatting idly about fishing. DuBoise was half-listening, worrying about his mom, when the man asked: “Why did you do it?”

“Why’d I do what?” he replied.

“Why’d you kill her?”

“Kill who?”

DuBoise tensed as four men held him down and shackled his wrists and ankles.

He yelled that he wasn’t a killer, all the way to the Morgan Street Jail.

Dragged into a cell, his face hit a concrete bunk. A nurse approached with a syringe.

His heart pounded as the sedative hit his bloodstream. He drifted into blackness.

JAILED

DuBoise awoke groggy. He tried to move his arms, but they were strapped. He stared at the ceiling. A day earlier, he’d cruised wide open streets.

At his first court appearance, he learned he’d been charged with first-degree murder. Who’d been killed, or how, he did not know. He had no sense of what evidence the state might claim to have.

The detainees on the 16-cell block that became his new world acted strangely. Sedated, they walked in place like zombies. The inmates called it “the Thorazine shuffle.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (10)

As months passed, he got drips of information. It felt like forever before he met his court-appointed lawyer, and forever before he saw him again — and by then it was a different guy.

He took a polygraph. He was told he’d passed, but nothing changed. He had no idea how any of this worked. Legally, DuBoise had reached adulthood, but he was still a teenager who lived at home. This was simply too big of a mistake, he thought, clinging to the idea that the people in charge would fix it.

Days blurred as he gazed out his skinny cell window, until one day, he saw familiar faces — Saladino and another officer. Soon, he watched cellmates get called out, one by one.

As they returned, he heard whispers that the detectives were asking about him.

The men came back quickly, except for one. Claude Butler was a small-time criminal, mostly a go-between for drug deals and prostitution. Detectives pulled him aside again and again.

When Butler introduced himself in the dayroom later, DuBoise thought he seemed like a con artist.

“Why do they keep calling you out?” DuBoise asked.

“They’re just trying to help you,” Butler said.

TRIAL, FEBRUARY 1985

DuBoise had waited 16 months in jail when sheriff’s deputies walked him into a courtroom. His grandmother had bought him a gray three-piece suit with wide lapels. His hair had grown scraggly, but he’d declined a cut. They want me to look like a schoolboy, he’d thought, but that’s not me.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (11)

His muscles ached after standing in a holding cell since 4 a.m., but he felt oddly relieved. His trial — the truth, as he saw it — had finally arrived. Soon he’d be back to helping his dad around the house and driving for his mom, who’d never learned.

The victim’s parents held hands in the front row. Judge Harry Lee Coe III peered down from the bench through thick glasses. People had called him “Hangin’ Harry” ever since he was a minor league pitcher slinging curveballs said to hang in the air. By then the name referenced his harsh sentences — 99 years for a teenager who’d robbed a cabbie of $14, or life for a man who fell $41 behind on probation payments.

DuBoise stiffened as lawyers probed potential jurors, asking their opinions on the death penalty.

He eyed the prosecutor, broad and tall with Beatles-style hair. Mark Ober led the state attorney’s “major crimes” division, meaning mostly homicides. He knew how to manage a case that wasn’t an easy win. In 1980, for instance, he put away a former cop who’d killed a security guard during a supermarket robbery.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (12)

In his calming drawl, Ober told the jury that the young man at the defense table was a murderer.

Not until right then did DuBoise fully comprehend the detailed story built against him.

A dentist had discovered Barbara Grams after pulling up to his office near Hutto’s Corner. He spotted an emptied purse and wallet first, then a woman on her back, nude but for a tube top pulled over her breasts.

Bloody boards lay in the grass. A pair of knees, it seemed, had dug ruts in the dirt during a struggle.

The woman had been raped and bludgeoned — the center of her face an open wound. She also had an odd semicircular mark over her left cheekbone with fainter ragged edges above it. A bite mark, Ober told the jury.

DuBoise watched Ober gesture toward him, explaining how, “in a fit of violent rage,” he was the one responsible.

Over two weeks, Ober called a parade of witnesses, and DuBoise felt more and more like he was outside, watching through a window.

Some of the physical evidence actually pointed away from him. Hairs lifted from Grams’ body, for instance, didn’t match his. Ober began by building his case on words.

A neighbor recalled a late-night scream, a loud radio and tires screeching.

Another witness lived at the Peter Pan Motel. He claimed he’d met a sullen DuBoise at a party and that DuBoise said, “I’m wanted for murder.”

I don’t even know this guy, DuBoise thought.

Josie Suarez took the stand. She called DuBoise a friend, though she believed he harbored a crush. She said he’d bragged about fighting and killing and that she’d seen scratches on his chest and back. Another time, she said, he’d flashed a ring on his pinkie like one missing from Grams’ finger.

Why, DuBoise wondered, was she saying this crap? Was she scared of the cops?

Claude Butler took the stand in jail clothes. He was, by then, serving time for robbery and kidnapping.

He told the jury he’d known DuBoise before lockup. They were “real good friends.”

DuBoise gaped. They’d met on the cell block.

DuBoise had initially proclaimed his innocence, Butler said. But on Christmas 1983, as the prisoners gathered to watch TV, he said, DuBoise confessed.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (13)

In Butler’s retelling, DuBoise had been riding around, drinking and getting high with his brother, Victor, and their friend Ray Garcia. Short on money, the men tried to snatch Barbara Grams’ purse, but she recognized Garcia. They threw her in the car.

“The next thing he know, he said that he was having sex with the girl,” Butler said, “and he said then, while he was having sex with her, said that Ray hit the girl with a stick, said that it grossed him out, so he got up off the girl.”

Butler claimed a tearful DuBoise described watching the other men rape the woman before his brother hit her again.

Ober asked Butler if he’d been promised anything in exchange for his testimony.

No, he said.

THE BITE MARK

It soon became clear that the heart of the state’s case was the bite mark.

Ober’s star witness was Richard Souviron, a suave dentist famed for his role in securing a conviction against serial killer Ted Bundy. A “founding father” in the nascent field of forensic odontology, he’d testified in a handful of bite-mark cases by 1985 and would go on to testify in dozens more.

In the DuBoise case, he explained, he’d tried examining the actual bite mark, but the formaldehyde it was preserved in had shrunk it. Instead, Souviron reviewed photographs.

He’d excluded other suspects, such as Grams’ roommates and a man who’d given her diet pills, by looking at the beeswax models of their teeth, he said.

Souviron held a cast of DuBoise’s teeth over a photo of Grams’ wound as he narrated exactly how they’d gripped the young woman’s cheek.

“The teeth of Robert DuBoise, upper and lower, left the bite mark on the left cheek of Barbara Grams,” the dentist said, “to a reasonable degree of dental certainty.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (14)

During cross-examination, Robert Nutter, one of DuBoise’s defense attorneys, grilled Souviron about a speech the dentist had given about three months earlier to a convention of police chiefs. Nutter quoted:

“If you tell me that is the guy that did it, I will go into court and say that is the guy that did it.”

“I have no problem with that if you tell me the guy confessed.”

Souviron suggested the defense lawyer took his statements grossly out of context.

Angelo Ferlita, the other defense attorney, ridiculed Souviron as “the great super sleuth.” He’d already lambasted bite mark evidence as unscientific and called to the stand another expert dentist who said DuBoise was not the biter.

To the jury, Ober acknowledged the evidence was imperfect. There was not a single eyewitness tying DuBoise to the victim or the scene. There were no fingerprints, no hairs or other physical evidence. But, he argued, there was no evidence to prove DuBoise wasn’t there.

Later, the prosecutor sipped a soft drink in the courthouse hallway. Another lawyer, who’d been observing the trial, walked past and quietly declared, “That’s not guilty. That’s called not guilty.”

THE VERDICT

DuBoise studied the jurors as they took their seats after 1½ days of deliberation. Some of the women, he thought, looked like they’d been crying.

The foreperson passed a sheet of paper to a bailiff, who gave it to Judge Coe, who asked DuBoise to stand.

Guilty of first-degree murder.

Guilty of attempted sexual battery.

“f*ck this sh*t,” DuBoise muttered. He kicked a chair as deputies hustled him out of the room to cool down.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (15)

When he returned, the bailiffs had taken his necktie. “I know you’re in a tough position …” Coe started.

“You don’t know how tough it is,” DuBoise yelled.

He turned to his attorneys.

“I don’t want them to kill me,” he said. “Get me out of here!”

Coe moved to the trial’s death penalty phase, a process that lasted mere minutes.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (16)

Ober displayed a photo of Grams’ injuries and spoke of the pain she’d have felt. He suggested to jurors that they had made a promise to her: nothing less than DuBoise’s death.

The defense called DuBoise’s father. Victor DuBoise Sr. entered in his wheelchair to describe his “good son” as a “typical teenager.”

None of the jurors voted for death.

That wouldn’t matter. After they’d left, Ober asked the judge to overrule.

Coe called the killing “especially wicked, evil, atrocious, and cruel.” Calmly, he ordered that DuBoise “be sentenced to die in the electric chair.”

WELCOME TO DEATH ROW

With chains running from his wrists to his ankles, DuBoise stared from the back seat of the sheriff’s cruiser, desperate to be out there in the dark fields flying by along Interstate 75.

Florida State Prison appeared as the sun was rising, green and gloomy and bigger than he’d imagined. A lieutenant stood at the back ramp barking rules. DuBoise heard none of them. For all he knew, he was going to be killed right then.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (17)

Guards marched him down a long hallway, through the general population, every door sealed tight for the arrival of a condemned prisoner.

Entering death row as the newest of more than 200 men awaiting execution, he heard the clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk of his cell door cranking open, then slamming shut. There was no mattress.

Someone tossed a note by his door, “You sure are pretty.”

DuBoise stood by the bars and screamed.

Your support makes a difference

The Marked Man is based on more than a year of research and reporting by Times reporters Christopher Spata and Dan Sullivan. They reviewed over 11,000 pages of documents and spoke with more than 50 people, including 25 hours of interviews with Robert DuBoise.

Projects like this are only possible with your support. Please consider subscribing or making a tax-deductible donation to the Times Journalism Fund.

Donate Gain unlimited access

There’s no easy fix to a murder conviction. It would take a moonshot.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (18)

After 502 days in county jail and a bewildering trial, Robert DuBoise’s freckled face had turned pale and scabbed with acne. Before a Florida State Prison official took his mug shot, someone chopped off the feathery rocker hair he’d kept as a way of holding onto himself.

Incarceration does not make a man a criminal, but in prison, what was the difference? His insistence that he had nothing to do with the 1983 rape and murder of Barbara Grams was all but worthless inside, except to his own small flame of dignity. Every day that passed in here was another gone forever.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (19)

That first summer, 1985, a record heat wave baked the building. DuBoise, now 20 years old, lay on the bare concrete with the roaches, trying to get cool. The place stunk of sweat. Like the 96 other men on his wing, he washed his socks in the sink and hung them from the bars to dry. His toilet leaked, making puddles of grime.

Though the state provided death row prisoners with a lawyer, DuBoise was fuzzy on what his might be doing. He had a dim sense that challenging the prosecution’s specious trial evidence would take a very long time, if it were even possible.

DuBoise had no way of knowing then what it would require to be cleared of a capital murder conviction. He would need not only a first-class legal effort, but scientific advances and the compassion of strangers. Ten years could vanish between court moves. The elements of a successful exoneration would need to line up like 7s on a slot machine.

“I knew,” he said, “it wasn’t an easy fix anymore.”

DEATH ROW DAYS

What everyone tried to avoid thinking about was the electric chair. The lights flickered whenever staff tested “Old Sparky.” The dreadful buzz of a twin-engine propeller plane meant the delivery of another death warrant signed by the governor. During DuBoise’s first year, the state executed seven men.

If the plane came for him, he imagined charging the fence, forcing the tower guards to shoot. But you only learned your warrant was signed after you were cuffed and locked down in a death watch cell.

Executions left DuBoise wracked with sadness. In prison, he learned not to judge people by their old ways but by how they treated him. Most of the inmates struck him as pretty good guys. “That’s a human life,” he thought.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (20)

Twenty-three hours a day inside a cell felt far longer. He waited for another tray of cold rice and gravy to come through the slot. He flipped through the same worn True Detective magazine. He usually managed three or four hours of sleep.

Several times a week, water ran cold over DuBoise’s shorn head in a dirty shower stall — those five minutes being, for the first few weeks, his only time outside a windowless, sickly green cell.

“The yard,” an unshaded concrete pen, was the one place death row inmates came face-to-face. DuBoise remembers seeing his first stabbing there.

The arrival of deodorant from the canteen meant Mondays. Overpriced ice cream marked Fridays — until someone melted a pint of vanilla to smuggle in a $50 bill, leading to a ban. The newscast on his cell’s tiny state-provided, black-and-white TV signaled 6 p.m. Such mundane events offered desperately needed proof that time still moved.

Many inmates tried to get pen pals to fall in love with them and send money. Writing consumed DuBoise’s days, only his letters went to the Tampa Tribune, the St. Petersburg Times and The Ledger in Lakeland. He wrote to the little weekly paper that covered the prison town, the Bradford County Telegraph. He wrote to journalists in Washington and New York, to the mayor of Tampa and the governor of Florida. He wrote to investigators in detective magazines and shows he watched, like “60 Minutes” and “20/20.” In exacting handwriting that could stretch beyond 20 pages, he’d detail his arrest, his trial, the flimsy evidence. Would someone, please, look at the facts?

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (21)

Sometimes he wondered about who’d really killed Barbara Grams. Whose place was he in? Then he’d think, What’s that matter to me? But the system demands closure. To go free, there’d likely need to be an answer: If you didn’t do it, who did?

Three years had dripped by when a prison administrator appeared at the gate of his cell. DuBoise’s lawyer had gotten his death sentence reduced to life in prison.

“Are you kidding me?” DuBoise said.

“I thought you’d be happy,” the administrator said.

DuBoise wanted to fight his conviction, not his sentence. Leaving death row, he knew, meant losing his state-funded attorney. His mother could place $5, maybe $10 a week in his account, enough for stamps or ramen noodles, but hardly a lawyer. He needed help, but from where, he didn’t know.

‘GEN POP’

Departing the relative calm of death row for the boisterous halls of general population meant trading the 15 highly confined inmates in his section for about 1,000 men — many of them lifers — with the freedom to roam.

The gate to DuBoise’s new cell popped open at 5 a.m. Each morning, he stood inside, alert, wondering if this would be the day men would step in to rob him or worse.

In this way, decades passed.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (22)

Decades of heavy steel doors slammed shut to seal off the wing where people were brawling. Decades of wondering if the brush of another man’s sleeve might turn deadly. Decades entombed by concrete and steel, with no shortage of items that could be ground into a sharp point. He saw about a dozen stabbings.

DuBoise navigated the finicky prison codes. He weighed letting things go against the mortal danger of appearing to be a pushover. Everyone had a hustle. “What game is this person running,” he learned to ask himself, wary of both inmates and guards.

He heated instant coffee with the current from a bare wire and toasted stale slices of wheat in a tinfoil box he’d rigged with light bulbs. It was a poor substitute for the tiny cups of espresso he enjoyed from West Tampa’s Fourth of July Cafe, always with a buttered hunk of Cuban bread. Using ingredients slipped from the kitchen, he avoided the drama of the chow hall by eating decades of American cheese sandwiches in his cell.

Years passed with sporadic family visits. “Sorry it’s been three years …” a sister would write. DuBoise never held it against them. His letters home avoided mention of his troubles, “because that’s like sentencing your loved ones to be in prison with you.” He cried when the guards called him into the chapel to tell him his father died, but those were his last tears. Emotion, he knew, gets used against you.

He was 20. Then 30. Then 40.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (23)

Work proved his saving grace. His first-ever job, he remembers, came at his own request: Could he repair the broken warmers on the carts that brought cold food to death row? After that, his aptitude for solving mechanical mysteries got him assignments servicing air conditioners and electrical fixtures, even the warden’s car. Off the clock, he’d ingratiate himself by fixing inmates’ radios or the lights in their cells.

Work acted first as a distraction, then a sort of meditation, and finally a salvation from the stigma of guilt. If he said he could fix something, then did, no one could deny he was telling the truth. No one could deny his worth. “You show (the guards) you can do that,” said a friend of DuBoise’s from prison, “and they treat you like a human.”

Countless hours passed in monkish devotion atop ladders, between walls, on rooftops and even outside the fence. His tool belt let him roam where few prisoners could.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (24)

Still, prison is prison. By the time George W. Bush became president, DuBoise had logged about nine months combined in solitary confinement for a dozen offenses, from smoking a joint to having dirt on his cell bars to possessing a jar of peanut butter. Once, when he wasn’t in his cell at the end of the day, the prison charged him with an escape attempt.

Another time, DuBoise got in trouble when, instead of listening to the guards, he’d simply “kept on writing his letter.” He never stopped writing.

“My family has no money to hire an attorney and every one I’ve written to over the years wants money first,” he wrote in April 2006 to the Innocence Project, the famed nonprofit law firm in New York. “If only I could get someone to read my case and see that I’m telling the truth and help me.”

One more plea cast into the ether.

HELP FROM OUTSIDE

By late 2006, DuBoise’s hope had dimmed. He was 41, more than half his life spent inside. His hairline receded into a widow’s peak. Wrinkles creased his forehead.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (25)

While working maintenance in the kitchen at Polk Correctional Institution, he spotted what he recognized as a civilian employee’s key ring left hanging from a door. If caught with it, he’d surely be thrown in the hole. He pocketed the keys anyway.

“Grab this,” he whispered to food service manager Lurdes Sanchez in the kitchen the following day.

“What?” the diminutive woman with long black hair answered in her heavy Nuyorican accent. “I’m not grabbing nothing.”

She glanced down and saw her keys. If he’d turned them in, she’d have lost her job, maybe even been charged with a crime.

DuBoise was working on an ice machine days later when Sanchez found him to say hello.

“Are you an idiot?” asked another inmate later. “That girl likes you.”

Next time, she appeared with a plate of tacos she’d cooked. DuBoise noticed how hurt she looked when he explained he was vegetarian. He took extra care in telling her it was nothing personal.

Sanchez was divorced, in her 40s. He crafted her a jewelry box. She snuck in Calvin Klein cologne. They shared discreet “kisses” by sipping soda from the same straw. “He’d turn so red,” Sanchez said. Later, they’d actually kiss in the walk-in refrigerator. Soon DuBoise was sending letters to her teenage daughter, Lisette, too. He imagined adopting her, thinking he’d probably have a daughter her age if he’d stayed free. Strict rules barred relationships with inmates, but Sanchez believed in DuBoise’s innocence enough that she quit.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (26)

The 25th anniversary of the killing of Barbara Grams was approaching, along with DuBoise’s first chance at parole. In 2007, Sanchez, by then his fiancée, drove to Tallahassee with his mother to face the commission that would decide whether he was suitable for release.

A 10-minute timer began to tick down. There were mistakes in his case, the women pleaded. “My son,” Myra DuBoise sobbed, “is innocent.”

The commissioners interrupted. They weren’t there, they said, to retry the case.

They turned to a woman who read a letter by Grams’ mother, who described how she’d been kept from seeing her daughter’s body because it had been so disfigured.

“Exceptionally brutal,” the commissioners called the crime. They said DuBoise’s release could “cause unreasonable risk.” They set his presumptive parole date in the year 2094, when he’d be 130.

He’d get another parole hearing soon enough, they said. “See you again in five years.”

THE PROMISE OF DNA

DuBoise’s disappointment was tempered, if only because he had another plan.

For years, he’d watched “World News Tonight” and “48 Hours.” He read USA Today and any local newspapers he could get, paying particular attention to murder cases and DNA analysis.

First introduced as evidence in a criminal court in 1986 — a year after his own trial — DNA had proliferated, even leading to exonerations. He’d heard it was possible to file a motion for post-conviction DNA testing.

For how much media attention DNA exonerations could attract, it seemed maddeningly tough to convince the state to dig up or test evidence. Even then, DNA results might not set someone free. But maybe they might be a start.

DuBoise’s fiancée and sister found a lawyer willing to work for cheap, and by 2008, they’d managed to get a hearing on a request to test DNA evidence. His family felt so sure he’d go free that Sanchez packed him jeans and a button-down, which sat folded on the seat of her car as DuBoise stepped once more into a Tampa courtroom.

At the bench was a new judge — a fresh set of eyes that gave DuBoise hope.

The judge who’d presided over his trial 23 years earlier was dead. Harry Lee Coe III had gone on to win election as Hillsborough County’s state attorney. Years later, media reports revealed he’d sunk into gambling debt and borrowed money from employees. Amid the scandal, Coe took his own life.

Mark Ober, the popular lawyer who’d sent DuBoise to prison, succeeded Coe as the elected state attorney.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (27)

Now one of Ober’s assistant prosecutors would be fighting the challenge to one of his signature wins.

Meanwhile, DuBoise’s inexpensive lawyer seemed overmatched. She told the court that DuBoise had testified at his trial. He hadn’t. And in a bizarre move, she suggested that DNA testing would turn up not DuBoise’s DNA, but his brother’s and a friend’s. That would have only bolstered the theory that all three men had participated in the killing.

Another blow: DuBoise’s best shot at DNA evidence — biological swabs, nail clippings and hair samples from the autopsy — had been destroyed. Disposed, the evidence log said, in 1990, during a routine post-appeals cleanout. Rape kit samples taken by the medical examiner, a detective told the court, were also long gone.

What remained were microscope slides with hair and debris from the scene, but experts said the chemical process to unseal those slides likely would destroy any DNA. There seemed to be nothing else to test.

The prosecutor argued that they shouldn’t bother. After all, a witness had claimed DuBoise confessed.

DuBoise couldn’t believe the pushback. Why not just test those slides and see?

“I have never bombarded this court with frivolous filings,” he wrote to the judge. “I have never tried to beat this case by technicalities. ... I am asking that you test evidence. Not someone’s word or speculation.”

Three weeks later, the judge ruled: No.

Not long after, Sanchez moved to New Jersey to work as a nurse caretaker, a job she needed after spending so much on DuBoise’s lawyers. She kept the wedding dress she’d bought and said she’d intended to stay engaged. But DuBoise felt sure she’d met someone new.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (28)

How could he really know, with this chasm separating their worlds? They may have still loved each other, but their relationship required a level of trust that prison blighted. He wrote to her to say they should both move on.

It hurt, losing the dream of a family yet again, but he wasn’t mad at her. No one, he thought, could wait forever. And maybe it was easier for him, too. In prison, the harder someone holds on to the outside, the worse it hurts.

ONE LAST CHANCE

Parole was all that remained, so he tried playing that game anew. In 2012, he provided the commission with certificates from the sorts of self-help courses he’d heard they liked, such as anger management classes, and his recent baptism.

Denied. See you in five years.

In 2017, his records showed no disciplinary incidents in nearly two decades. The commission wanted remorse. “I can’t be remorseful,” he said, “for something that I didn’t do.”

Denied. See you in seven years.

Sunlight blanketed the path before DuBoise the day he got news of that last rejection. He walked the concrete stretch between prison buildings called “the street.” He was in his mid-50s. No appeals left. He rubbed his hands together and said a little prayer.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (29)

Sometime after that, his eye caught his name on a sheet posted by a door. Legal mail. That puzzled him. Eight years had passed since any court activity.

The next morning, he picked up an envelope from the mailroom. It bore a return address from the Innocence Project — 13 years after he’d first written.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (30)

Within a week, he sat across from a sharply dressed young woman born in Brooklyn the year he got locked up. Susan Friedman held degrees in law and biomedical sciences. She had expertise in emerging DNA technology and experience representing people whose convictions rested on unreliable forensic science. She’d visited plenty of prisons, but the first thing she noticed about DuBoise was how respectfully the guards treated him, like no prisoner she’d seen before.

As his new lawyer spoke, DuBoise heard things he’d always believed about his case but had been helpless to prove — things about bite mark evidence and jailhouse informants. Finally, someone was promising to unravel what happened in 1983.

What DuBoise didn’t know was that it was good timing at last in Hillsborough County. It had only taken 35 years.

A NEW ERA

A different kind of state attorney — for Tampa, at least — had swept into town.

Andrew Warren, a wiry, polished, progressive politician, stood before a few dozen local lawyers and judges in early 2020. They’d gathered for a luncheon at a downtown law center, and Warren was the featured speaker — there to showcase a new initiative.

“From my first days as a prosecutor, I had the same concern that all good prosecutors should,” Warren said over clanking cutlery. “What happens if I get it wrong?”

Warren four years earlier had shocked the Tampa establishment by winning the job of top prosecutor in old-school Hillsborough County. The ambitious political newcomer, who’d mostly been a white-collar federal prosecutor outside Florida, managed to unseat Ober by riding a wave of support for criminal justice reform.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (31)

Imagine, Warren told the crowd, that of the 15,000 felony prosecutions his office handled each year, they got 99.9% right. “That means in 15 cases a year, people are wrongfully convicted.”

To that end, he’d created Hillsborough’s conviction review unit to investigate closed cases in which defendants claimed innocence. With far easier access to case files, evidence and witnesses, Warren said, prosecutors can investigate such claims in ways defense lawyers simply can’t. That efficiency can spare innocent people years or decades behind bars. Similar review entities had cropped up across the country as false convictions made big news.

To run it, Warren had selected another outsider to Tampa’s insular legal scene. Teresa Hall was short and self-assured, with a disarming Midwestern folksiness. She was right for the job, she believed, in part because of her respect for street-level police work. Before taking up law in her mid-30s, she’d started her career as a paramedic in Indianapolis, working alongside cops.

“It’s one thing to sit in an office,” she says, “but it’s another when you’re in the home and someone’s brains are splattered all over the wall.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (32)

Reviewing convictions required a willingness to highlight uncomfortable mistakes from inside an organization — something she’d done in a previous gig, assessing a hospital’s treatment of its patients. Warren hired her, in a way, to do that again.

It could get isolating, being the lone lawyer scrutinizing convictions in an office filled with lawyers working to secure them. Hall believed her prosecutor colleagues got things right most of the time. Everyone treated her cordially, but she knew some rolled their eyes, thinking: That’s what defense attorneys and appeals courts are for.

To those who said her work was a waste of time, she’d reply: There are about 3,000 people in the national database of exonerees who may disagree.

At the luncheon, Hall took the microphone after her boss and explained how prisoners’ petitions came to her. A few were typed by defense attorneys. Others arrived from prison cells, barely legible, scrawled in faded ink.

They told tales of injustice, convoluted yarns about malfeasance and faulty forensics. Asked to explain why they were innocent, many delivered a generic refrain: Because I didn’t do it.

Each time, Hall imagined that she was re-prosecuting the case. Could she convict this person again? Most often, her answer was yes.

In her first year, hundreds of petitions and their files filled her cubbyhole of an office. She moved to a larger space, and again the banker boxes piled toward the ceiling. After 15 months, she had not recommended freeing anyone.

The day that Hall spoke, another months-old petition waited on her desk, this one in the case of the State v. Robert Earl DuBoise.

DIGGING INTO DUBOISE

In February 2020, when Hall started reading the 156-page document the Innocence Project filed on DuBoise’s behalf, she bristled.

The petition, in her opinion, went over the top in disparaging Tampa police and prosecutors, as if they’d been willfully out to get DuBoise in 1983.

As Hall read on, however, she couldn’t deny the case’s weakness.

Friedman, the Innocence Project lawyer, had left the prison after her first meeting with DuBoise determined to begin her own step-by-step reinvestigation of the murder of Barbara Grams.

Police reports, trial transcripts, interviews with experts — she’d collected it all. She flew to Tampa, drove to the site of the long-gone mall, to Grams’ home and the unremarkable path behind a dentist’s office where the young woman died. Then Friedman had put together a blow-by-blow account of the holes in the case.

First, the bite mark. Friedman referenced several studies underscoring the fallibility of bite mark analysis. One found that forensic dentists got it wrong as much as 91% of the time. Another found a 63% error rate. There was a lack of standards for expert testimony on bite mark analysis, she noted, and nationwide, she cited 26 forensic dentists who’d been involved in 31 wrongful convictions secured through bite marks.

These days, dentists are barred from testifying that a particular mark is a “match” to a set of teeth. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences and other research groups have concluded that bite mark analysis has little basis in science.

Friedman would later obtain the help of Adam Freeman, a former president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology. He identified problem after problem with the DuBoise case, from untrained police using beeswax — a medium that can easily distort — to low-quality Polaroids taken of Grams’ skin.

The biggest error he saw was the oddly shaped wound itself. It was, he believed, not a bite mark at all.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (33)

Then there was the analysis of Richard Souviron, the dentist who’d insisted in court that DuBoise had bitten Grams. He had retracted his testimony in similar cases.

Back in Tampa, Hall, too, pulled the case files, police reports and trial transcripts to begin a review of her own. Some 3,500 pages of documents arrived around March 2020, just as the world shut down. Hall placed the massive stack on her dining room table and reviewed them from a recliner with a TV tray as a desk.

She noted that Souviron and another dentist who had been consulted in the case had told police the biter may have gaps in his upper front teeth. DuBoise had none.

She found unsettling the fact that police and prosecutors said DuBoise killed Grams with his brother and a friend but had only charged DuBoise.

Documents concerning jailhouse informant Claude Butler seemed particularly curious.

When he spoke up, Butler had been facing a possible life sentence after pleading guilty to robbery and kidnapping charges. Days after first telling prosecutors about DuBoise’s supposed confession, he received five years. And soon after he testified, a document appeared in his file. No promises had been made, it said, but “the interests of justice” required a mitigated sentence. Signed, Mark Ober.

Butler walked free.

Hall searched for Butler, hoping he could explain. When he finally called her back, he was two states and a lifetime away from his troubled youth in Tampa. Hall asked if he had been offered anything in exchange for testifying.

Butler told Hall that he stood by his claims. He described again DuBoise’s supposed confession, adding, “He got this glazed look in his eyes, like he was reliving it.”

Butler’s account struck Hall as odd. She hung up, still questioning his credibility.

Other than the bite-mark testimony and jailhouse informant — both red flags for wrongful convictions — nothing showed that DuBoise and Barbara Grams had known each other. No one said they’d ever seen them together. Hall saw nothing tying DuBoise to the crime.

A STUNNING DISCOVERY

Hall was not expecting to like Friedman, but she couldn’t help it.

As the women talked on the phone, they discussed their growing sense of DuBoise’s innocence. Convincing a judge, Hall cautioned, might take something stronger, like DNA.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (34)

Most DNA evidence had been destroyed, but Hall knew the Tampa Police Department still had some odds and ends from the scene, so in the summer of 2020 she asked to see whatever was left.

Days later, Hall stood inside a cramped evidence room as personnel laid out butcher paper. They wheeled in boxes and crates and crumpled brown bags. With gloved hands, they unearthed plaster casts, teeth models, fingerprint cards, cigarette butts. They laid out DuBoise’s old wallet and a copy of his work schedule.

As it began to seem less likely that there was DNA to test, Hall chatted idly with Tampa police Detective Joseph Sustek, who was supervising. He’d heard that medical examiners sometimes keep rape kits of murder victims.

Hall, leaving disappointed, didn’t dwell on the remark. In late July, remembering what Sustek had said, she emailed the medical examiner to ask if, by some long shot, they might have anything. A morgue supervisor unbolted a secure room, unlocked a small, refrigerated drawer and browsed samples from homicides dating back to the 1960s. There they were: three tiny, glass plates, smeared and dyed red, purple and white — samples taken from a body.

A label on each bore handwriting: Grams. Dated 8-19-83.

No one had ever asked or thought to look.

Hall called the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about testing, but that would likely take months.

To bypass the bureaucratic grind, the Innocence Project offered to pay for testing at a lab in California. Hall wanted an assurance: The state would get the results, even if they wound up proving DuBoise guilty.

A MATCH

On Aug. 17, 2020, DuBoise was working maintenance at Hardee Correctional Institution when officers called him into an office. A prison nurse took out two cotton swabs.

“Open your mouth,” he was told.

He felt the stick scraping his tongue and cheek.

A nurse had DuBoise sign the envelope, marked with a biohazard symbol.

Three days later, Hall was watching an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” at home when her phone chimed.

The lab in California had found epithelial cells — the kind that slough off from skin or other tissue — on the Grams autopsy slides, Friedman told her. Sperm cells, too.

None of it belonged to Robert DuBoise.

The next evening, Hall sat with friends in Ybor City along the sidewalk of Seventh Avenue, people-watching and puffing an Acid cigar with a sweet tip. Her phone chimed again.

Another lab had examined the results, this one with access to an FBI database with the names of millions of felons across the U.S. The sperm cell DNA had produced a match. It wasn’t DuBoise’s brother or their friend Ray Garcia.

It was a man in prison. He was serving a life sentence for another murder in the Tampa Bay area committed on Oct. 22, 1983 — the same day DuBoise was arrested. In a report, he would be referred to as “Person X.”

DuBoise got a call on Monday morning, strange in itself, because inmates could not receive calls. The guards brought him to a back room of the dormitory. On the phone was Friedman, her assistant, two paralegals and several interns at the Innocence Project. Everyone who’d worked on his case.

“You’re going to be free,” Friedman told him. “And they know who really did it.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (35)

Your support makes a difference

Projects like this are only possible with your support. Please consider subscribing or making a tax-deductible donation to the Times Journalism Fund.

Donate Gain unlimited access

While police targeted Robert DuBoise during Tampa’s ‘summer of hell,’ a murder spree went undetected.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (36)

Robert DuBoise pulled up to a Love’s truck stop in Jasper, Florida, hauling a semi full of Tropicana orange juice. It was August 2022, almost two years after he walked beyond the razor-topped prison gate into a new, free life. He threw his clothes in the coin laundry and slid into a booth with a coffee.

Cleared, finally, of the murder he didn’t commit as a teenager, DuBoise was 57. His youth was gone. He couldn’t go back to 1983 and make investigators connect the sparse clues sooner. He’d have to settle for the truth, however belatedly it had arrived.

On the truck stop TV he recognized Andrew Warren, the state attorney who’d reviewed his wrongful conviction and facilitated his release.

Warren was talking about two middle-aged faces staring blankly from mug shots — Amos Robinson and Abron Scott.

These were the real killers of 19-year-old Barbara Grams, Warren announced. And, he asserted, she wasn’t their only victim.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (37)

‘JAMMED UP WITH HOMICIDES’

The summer of 1983 became, in the words of one cop, a “summer of hell.” Murder cases piled up.

By Halloween, Robinson and Scott would be captured and charged with killing a man. But their links to a series of other murders and rapes — borne out in court documents and new charges — would stay hidden for decades.

With the DNA brought to light by DuBoise’s case as a catalyst, Robinson and Scott are now directly tied to three 1983 murder cases, when the young friends were 18 and 20 years old.

Neither man spoke to the Times for this story.

Beyond the crimes these two men are accused of, the summer of 1983 unfolded in chaos and bloodshed.

When Grams’ body was found behind a dentist’s office, detectives were already swamped. Women’s slain bodies had been turning up in public places in quick succession.

The killings alone weren’t an anomaly given the overall number of homicides, but eight dead women from July to early October with no immediate suspects? People were scared.

As police insisted there were no connections between the crimes, newspapers kept the grim tally. A woman’s nude body was found wrapped in a blanket outside a Busch Gardens-area Burger King; a student was drowned in a ditch after playing Pac-Man at a convenience store; a nurse’s aide was run down by a car and left in a Seminole Heights alley.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (38)

Someone raped and stabbed a young woman behind a Thonotosassa gas station. A slain runaway, only 14, was discovered semi-clothed and dumped in the woods near Oldsmar City Hall.

“We don’t have a mad killer (on the) loose,” a police spokesperson told the Tampa Tribune in August after reporters kept asking.

In some of the crimes, that assertion proved true. As fall approached, police apprehended three suspects who confessed or pleaded guilty. Then they arrested DuBoise. Another case closed.

But the remaining homicides stumped detectives until DuBoise went free and modern technology offered fresh leads. Only now can a fuller story be told.

The summer of 1983 began as skyscrapers were rising in the little downtown and concrete spread among the palm trees. Leaders saw the once-sleepy port city as a magnet for opportunity. “Tampa,” went the slogan, “where the good life gets better every day.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (39)

Some locals were still scraping by, like 41-year-old Linda Lansen.

Lansen spent much of Sunday, July 10, with her cats and two birds in the little central Tampa apartment that doubled as her darkroom.

Photography was a newer ambition for the divorced, single mom, but it was going well. Tampa’s top radio station, Q105, had hired her to shoot its crowded “Q-Zoo” events where listeners dove into pools of Jell-O to win a car.

She called her mom that afternoon and told her she’d earned $40 photographing the Bunny of the Year contest at the Playboy Club in St. Petersburg the night before. She’d get $40 more when she developed the film, helping her make the $147 rent.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (40)

After eating potato soup, Lansen got into her Dodge Diplomat with the Q105 stickers and drove off into the summer evening. The Dodge had no air conditioning, but she could roll down the windows. She didn’t tell anyone where she was going.

Kids found her purse near a creek later that night. Tampa police discovered her car ditched on a residential street. They peered in with flashlights and wondered aloud: Another murder?

A morning walker spotted Lansen’s body in the weeds near a dead end of Old Memorial Highway, barefoot and stripped below the waist. Bruises marked her lower legs and feet, as though she’d been kicking something. A blood-stained white towel shrouded her head, marked by four small bullet wounds.

Detectives questioned the Q105 DJ, Scott Shannon, on whom she’d had a crush. They queried classmates at Hillsborough Community College, where she’d taken photography and psychology classes, and men with whom she’d had casual flings. They talked to her ex-husband.

They lifted fingerprints from a window in her Dodge, but they wouldn’t find any matches for decades. With little to go on, the prints were filed away, and the investigation went cold.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (41)

A few weeks after Lansen was killed, Barbara Grams was attacked as she walked home from the mall — left, raped and beaten, with a suspected bite mark on her cheek. What would later become key evidence from her autopsy was stowed away in the medical examiner’s office and forgotten.

Weeks after that, a woman’s body was found by firefighters in the trunk of her burning car.

Herminia Grillo Castro, a 57-year-old seamstress, had driven to the Krispy Kreme on North Florida Avenue to drop off her sister-in-law, who worked the early shift. She never made it home.

The car smoldered in a field near Memorial Park Cemetery. Castro had been shot in the head with a shotgun. A gold ring was still on her finger, but a gold cross necklace and a medal that read “World’s Greatest Grandmother” were missing.

Police drew anger by chasing suspicions that a Castro family member might be involved. They followed another relative’s off-the-cuff speculation that “this was Cuban work.” When struggling investigators asked the grandmother’s family to do their own digging, her daughter felt the cops were clueless.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (42)

Witnesses wouldn’t talk for years. Her case stalled, too.

Decades later, Mark Ober, who’d prosecuted DuBoise, remembered authorities were “jammed up with homicides.”

“We had more,” he said, “than we could deal with.”

Aside from the killings, Tampa felt infected with corruption and tragedy in 1983. It was the year a man entered a Winn-Dixie east of Tampa, doused shoppers with gasoline and lit a flame. Three county commissioners were convicted of extortion, and a circuit judge faced trial for misconduct. So much cocaine flowed into Florida that the drug dropped to bargain prices.

Public fears were ushering in a “tough on crime” era nationwide, along with the roaring return of capital punishment. Florida led the country in executions.

The media took particular interest in Grams’ killing. Maybe it was the unusual “bite mark.” Maybe it was because she was young and pretty. Maybe it was where she worked. Everyone knew the Tampa Bay Center mall.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (43)

Even DuBoise had occasionally strolled past the chlorinated fountain or ridden the glass elevator to the second level of the mall where Grams had a job at the Hot Potato. They could have been friends, had they ever met. They knew some of the same people.

The same October night police arrested DuBoise in connection with her slaying, Amos Robinson and Abron Scott, the killers whose faces DuBoise would see on the news 40 years later, cornered a new victim as he left a bar across town.

ROBINSON AND SCOTT

Long before they were getting drunk and high, robbing gamblers of their pool-hall winnings, cruising dark streets in stolen cars and stashing them down the block so their parents wouldn’t see, Amos Robinson and Abron Scott grew up amid violence.

Court testimony and interviews with those who’ve known them paint a dismal picture.

Both were misfits who became troubled teens, shipped off at the same age to live with their fathers across the state — reunions that ultimately didn’t change their course.

Scott was broad and burly. Family called him “Spike,” and other kids tormented him with “egghead” for his misshapen skull. His brother shoved him from a parked car as a toddler, inflicting a head injury. A neighborhood boy cracked him with a bat at age 9, knocking him unconscious. His mother’s boyfriends hit him, too.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (44)

When Scott and his siblings gathered their mother’s bottles of booze, they drank the leftovers. When their mother convulsed from drinking, they held her down. At their apartment in North Boulevard Homes, a West Tampa housing project, Scott cried a lot. He went to school drunk.

In his early teens, he reconnected with his father, a pastor in Cocoa. He joined the Cocoa High School wrestling team but dropped out of school.

“It was just hard for him to trust me,” the Rev. Abron Scott Sr. said in court years later. “Mostly he just wanted to be accepted, wanted to be wanted again.”

He couldn’t read a job application, his family said, or make change. His IQ was pegged in the 50s or 60s, low enough to be considered mentally disabled.

When Scott’s older sister found a stable home in Oldsmar, she brought teenage “Spike” along.

He cut grass or labored at the docks for a little money, but he blew it quickly, going to dances on weekends and picking up drugs like “black beauties” and cocaine. Out came paranoia, a guy who liked to fight.

He first crossed paths with Robinson in a juvenile home. A group of boys was wrestling, and Scott pinned the baddest of the bunch. An impressed Robinson shook his hand.

Robinson was smaller and nearly two years older. His family had a touch more stability. “Middle class,” he’d insist to detectives. He ran track and played youth baseball in Graceville, near the Alabama line. His mother worked as a lumber mill machine operator.

Disturbing signs emerged early, like when he hit his sister with a glass vase, sending her to the hospital. Relatives remembered him as “devilish” for the things he did to cats, dogs and other kids. He once told a family member he enjoyed seeing others in pain.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (45)

At 14, Robinson went to live with his father, Amos Sr., in Tampa. Trouble followed: At 15, purse snatching. At 17, a robbery. He was held at the adult jail with grown men, but he still proved to be a danger.

A 1981 police report describes a man brought to jail immediately fending off other detainees, including Robinson, who ordered the young new arrival into the showers. Robinson got two years in prison for the rape.

Weeks after that assault, Scott, then 16, landed in the same jail for robbery. He recognized Robinson from the juvenile home. Other inmates threatened the new kid, but Robinson stopped them. “That’s what kind of, like, tied us in a little bit,” Scott said years later.

The pair met as boys but emerged from incarceration, legally speaking, as men.

Scott had been out for a few months, working for a company that repaired X-ray machines, when Robinson was released and showed up at Scott’s house looking to hang out.

After prison, Robinson found steady work at a Morrison’s cafeteria in downtown Tampa, impressing manager Marla Dubinsky with his tidy appearance and punctuality.

She knew about his robbery and sexual battery conviction but believed him when he said he didn’t want to go back. She entrusted him with $6,000 cash deposits and assigned him to help with catering. He worried, she remembered in court, about a female employee walking alone at night.

Robinson would sometimes appear at Scott’s sister’s home in Oldsmar unannounced, letting himself in to watch TV or take Scott to bars. “Disrespectful,” was how Scott’s family saw him. “Mean.”

When Scott lost his job, he said years later, he spent more time with Robinson, fighting in bars and strong-arming people for cash.

Scott’s brother-in-law went to a bar with them once. A fight erupted over a woman. When a man hit the floor, Robinson grabbed a bar stool and beat him bloody. He was pulled away and told he couldn’t do that to people.

“He scared me,” the brother-in-law said in court. “He wanted to take everything he wanted.”

END OF THE ROAD

After sundown, a certain stretch of Kennedy Boulevard became “the meanest street in town,” populated with sex workers and bikers, drunk brawlers and “sweating muscle men” darkening doorways, the Tampa Tribune wrote in 1983. On the night of Friday, Oct. 21, Scott and Robinson joined the chaos.

Their night started at Robinson’s house in Riverside Heights, where they chatted with Robinson’s parents before walking to a nearby lounge. They sipped from a bottle of Seagram’s gin en route to a dive on Nebraska Avenue, then Manila Bar in Ybor City. They drank beers and snorted cocaine.

They were drunk and high and looking for someone to rob by the time they walked down Kennedy, a few blocks east of downtown, into a parking lot outside the Old Plantation Lounge.

Earlier that night, Carlos Orellana’s sister saw her brother getting ready to go out. To her, Orellana was the man of the house, her adviser and protector. He’d immigrated as a young man with his family from their native Honduras. He held multiple jobs, learned to speak five languages and hoped to be a professor. The staff at the Old Plantation, which catered to gay men, remembered the 33-year-old sitting alone with a Dewar’s, wearing a tuxedo shirt and cumme*rbund.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (46)

When Orellana left the bar after midnight and stepped toward his beige Toyota Celica with his keys in hand, Robinson and Scott approached.

They pushed Orellana against his car. They punched him. They choked him unconscious and shoved him into the back seat. Scott steered west on Hillsborough Avenue and out of the city. They passed the sign reading “Oldsmar, the last of the new frontiers.” Scott turned on an unfinished road and drove until it became dirt and trees.

It was dark. Orellana fought back. “Let me run the guy over,” Robinson suggested. When he tried, the man kept fighting with Scott.

“Take the car,” Orellana pleaded weakly. “Leave me alone.”

Scott got in, pressed the gas and crushed Orellana into the ground.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (47)

The car got stuck in the sand, the men later said, so they went to a bar down the road and asked two guys with trucks for help. The helpers apparently didn’t notice the body as they used chains to free the Toyota. They handed Robinson and Scott a couple of Busch beers, then left before the killers drove away in the dead man’s car. Robinson went to work a few hours later.

Why kill Orellana, when they could have just robbed him, ditched him and taken his car? A prosecutor asked Scott decades later.

“Don’t ask me, ma’am,” he replied. “I don’t know.”

CHASING KILLERS

The next day, Scott and Robinson pulled up outside a house in Tampa. They told two friends the Toyota belonged to Scott.

After more gin and cocaine, the men climbed in for a ride. One noticed a cassette of ABBA’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2. That seemed odd for Scott’s taste. Then he noticed blood.

Scott pulled up near railroad tracks in East Tampa, where he and Robinson tossed out credit cards and a checkbook. The items belonged, they told the men in the back seat, to some guy they’d “hit” the night before.

Their joyride led them across the bay to Clearwater, to another parking lot and another robbery.

A call went out over police radio: Purse snatching outside the Countryside Mall. Toyota Celica. A young Dunedin officer named Bob Gualtieri launched into pursuit. The officer’s headlights followed the car as it zipped over dark lawns and plowed down a mailbox, then crashed in some bushes. Four men bailed out. Gualtieri, the future Pinellas County sheriff, grabbed one.

The man Gualtieri arrested gave the names of the others. Police soon arrested a friend who’d ridden in the back seat, and both told officers matching stories about Robinson and Scott bragging as they’d dumped evidence.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (48)

Days later, a construction worker pulled up to the isolated road, dead-ending into weeds and forest. He noticed men’s slip-on shoes, two Busch cans and a foul smell.

Tire tracks formed deep grooves leading to a divot where Orellana lay on his back.

NOWHERE LEFT TO RUN

The following day, 300 miles north, police surrounded a little house in Graceville, Robinson’s hometown. Robinson’s mother said he wasn’t home, but police caught him and Scott as they slipped out the back door.

We found the body, detectives said.

“I don’t want to go to prison,” Robinson said, his eyes welling.

He was quiet, then spoke quickly. Scott had moved first, he said, pushing Orellana against the car.

A sheriff’s plane carried the men home, where they’d be charged with murder. They said little over the din of wind and engines, but when they landed, Scott asked to talk to his friend alone. They spoke briefly in a hangar before Scott turned to a detective.

“It was an accident,” Scott said. “It was not meant to be a murder.”

When Scott later gave his full account, it was mostly the same, except he blamed Robinson for attacking first.

“We smoked a lot of cocaine and drank a lot. I can’t remember it all,” Scott said. “But I know I was involved.”

At their trials, attorneys for each suggested the other man was more to blame. Psychologists described each as “a follower.” Scott, his attorney said, was “a child in a man’s body.”

It didn’t matter. Robinson and Scott soon became the newest residents of Florida’s death row. No more than 200 feet away sat a bewildered Robert DuBoise, unsure whether he’d ever get out.

PROBED IN MORE KILLINGS

Robinson and Scott ultimately had their sentences changed to life in prison on appeal.

In one hearing, Orellana’s mother urged a judge to keep Robinson on death row, then collapsed, sobbing, on a courtroom table.

“I’m sorry what I did,” Robinson said.

“You have to say that to God,” Orellana’s sister told him.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (49)

Over the years, cold case detectives probed the men for links to other crimes.

In the early 1990s, a grand jury charged Robinson and his brother with murdering Herminia Castro, the grandmother found in her burnt car weeks after the Grams slaying. Scott was implicated but not charged.

Witnesses — some relatives of Robinson’s — had come forward after years of fear. They described sitting outside an apartment one morning in 1983 and seeing a car erupt in flames.

They recounted seeing the men running through a nearby cemetery and appearing outside the home, boasting that they’d “hit a good lick.” From one man’s pocket came a ring, a gold cross necklace, a Timex watch and cash.

“Did you hear that lady screaming and begging for her life?” a woman heard Robinson utter. “I just put the old bitch out of her misery.”

Others gave inconsistent accounts, though, and shortly before trial, a witness gave Robinson and the other man an alibi. The charges were tossed. Castro’s homicide remains unsolved.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (50)

Other open homicides from that era include Rose Haney, the 14-year-old runaway who turned up dead in a wooded lot in Oldsmar the same month that Orellana was killed less than a mile away. No suspects have been named.

In prison, Robinson remained a threat. In 1998, he stabbed and stomped to death 22-year-old Arturi Verra, who other prisoners said was trying to end their sexual relationship. He spent years in solitary confinement. In 2004, he beat to death 29-year-old cellmate Sang Nguyen during a sexual encounter.

In 2007, improved technology matched a print from Lansen’s driver’s-side window to Scott’s left thumb. Detectives went to question Robinson about his old friend. Robinson refused to talk. But as they rose to leave, he blurted out: “What did he do? Rape and kill a lady?”

Investigators tried DNA testing the Lansen evidence then, but the science wasn’t yet advanced enough. More than a decade later, when the pair’s DNA turned up in the Grams slaying, investigators tried again, using enhanced analysis. They matched Scott to a bloody towel. Samples from Lansen’s rape kit matched both men.

Scott and Robinson, charged in both Grams’ and Lansen’s murders, remain persons of interest in at least three other unsolved cases throughout Tampa Bay.

Had the conviction review unit not uncovered the DNA evidence in DuBoise’s case, Lansen’s family might still be without answers.

“There are no words to describe what it’s like to go through 39 years of grief and not knowing what happened,” Lansen’s niece, Linda Sheffield, said in 2022. “The void stays and the pain stays and the crying stays, it doesn’t go away.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (51)

In the years after DuBoise’s release, as he realized there were only a handful of people on Earth who could relate to his experience, he’d sometimes think of the victims’ families. He’d only seen them on TV, but he felt a kinship.

He imagined they also knew how it felt to lose so much, to live with a black hole of uncertainty. Surely they understood, as he now did, that a person can be happy after tragedy, but the pain goes on, too.

That, sometimes, evil steps into your life. There’s no peace in asking why.

Your support makes a difference

Projects like this are only possible with your support. Please consider subscribing or making a tax-deductible donation to the Times Journalism Fund.

Donate Gain unlimited access

Exoneree Robert DuBoise adjusts to freedom, even as some doubt his innocence.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (52)

In his first nights of freedom, after the hugs and the cameras and the celebratory lunch, when Robert DuBoise was finally alone — maybe the most alone he’d ever been — he opened his front door, stepped onto the damp grass and stared in awe at the midnight sky.

He settled into one of four pale yellow cabins on the property of the Sunny Center, a small foundation in Tampa’s Lowry Park North offering housing to exonerees. Normalcy came slowly.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (53)

In a single day, 186 Amazon packages arrived with clothes and household items from people who’d heard his story. Much of it he gave away. “I didn’t know what to do with an Instant Pot,” he said. Another day, he took his fraying 1980s driver’s license in for renewal, and the clerk gawked. He bought a pickup truck, then stumped a car insurance agent: “It’s like you don’t exist.”

In some ways, he was haunting his old life while trying to make something of what was left. He felt it was only fair that the people and institutions who’d stolen 37 years pay up and admit their wrongs, but he’d also have to live knowing there were powerful people who still insisted he was a killer.

What was he to do with all this freedom, anyway? Was it too late to realize his old dreams?

MOVING ON

Freedom, at first, left DuBoise exhausted.

For decades, he’d earned nothing for his labor. He felt compelled to make up for that now. He got handyman and remodeling jobs by referral from the Sunny Center’s volunteer manager, Dorothy Wheeler.

Tampa had grown huge and chaotic to DuBoise’s eyes. He made sandwiches to hand out to the homeless as he cruised streets he’d known by heart but which now felt overstuffed and strange. He’d never seen a Walmart or a Home Depot.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (54)

A giant cowboy boot sculpture in a Publix parking lot caught his eye, and he realized the last time he’d been there, the sprawling Shoppes at Boot Ranch plaza was an actual cattle ranch. At the site of the grubby upholstery shop where he used to work stood an immaculate apartment complex. The Journey’s End, a cinderblock biker dive where he’d met the crush who’d testified against him, was a ghost of its former self.

“I didn’t have one friend left,” DuBoise said. His closest buddy from the shop had died, as had the man’s son, whom DuBoise had held as a baby. His sister, Harriet, who’d greeted him at the prison gates, died from COVID-19 months later.

Lurdes Sanchez, his ex-fiancée, saw him on the news and texted him, but responding felt like opening a wound that had long scabbed over.

Sometimes he felt out of step with his family’s quotidian complaints. How were so many people so negative when they’d woken up free?

His new iPhone buzzed day and night — overwhelming. “How you doing?” cousins and well-wishers asked when he picked up. “Good,” he said, “but I don’t have nothing else to talk about right now.”

His health had suffered in prison. A surgeon inside had removed part of his thyroid, but after his release, a doctor said he should have taken medication for years. He was anemic, possibly from his prison diet of mostly American cheese sandwiches. A doctor suggested giving up his vegetarianism.

He found pleasure in small things, like a slice of pizza by the water at Ballast Point Park. Staffers he’d befriended at a doctor’s office insisted on bringing him there, then to Dairy Joy for ice cream.

On the subject of joy, DuBoise spoke measuredly, but he did use the term “amazing” to describe one thing — encountering children again.

Wheeler, the manager, was becoming a close friend. She invited DuBoise to her daughter’s wedding. When the bride’s toddler, May, met DuBoise at the reception, she raised her arms. He scooped the girl up. She rested her head on his shoulder and fell asleep under a pink “Trolls” blanket. He held her for hours. Wheeler occasionally asked if he needed a break.

“No,” he’d reply. “I’m good.”

In 2006, at age 40, he’d written from prison: “I always had a goal in life and that is to have a wife and children. I know I’m still young enough to meet this goal.” In 2021, at 56, he conceded to a documentary interviewer: “That wasn’t the case, of course.”

Still, DuBoise expressed gratitude for his new life to anyone who asked, and also in his prayers.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (55)

He enjoyed driving again, traversing wide-open spaces in solitude, listening to JOY-FM Christian radio. He trained to become a long-haul truck driver.

His first trip was to California. He slept in the Mojave Desert when he couldn’t make it to a truck stop before his mandated rest time, and he saw the sun rise over the Sierra Nevada on his way back. It was good, for a while.

An idea had crept back in: Maybe there was time. Maybe he could adopt children if he had the money and a house to raise them.

FIGHTING FOR COMPENSATION

The state told DuBoise he was owed nothing.

Florida law pays exonerees $50,000 for each year they spent in prison, but the state’s “clean hands” rule bars those with prior felonies. DuBoise had stolen tools from a car and siphoned gas as a teenager.

He fought for the money, and his dignity, by taking off his work boots and donning a crisp gray suit to trek the four hours to Tallahassee week after week. He walked with lobbyists through state Capitol halls and shook hands with legislators, his pleading eyes searching their faces as he asked them to pass a bill awarding him $1.85 million.

Then he sued the Tampa Police Department, retired Detectives Kenneth Burke and Phillip Saladino, the estate of their former boss, the late Detective John Counsman, and dentist Richard Souviron. The complaint claimed detectives conspired with the dentist to “fabricate” a match.

The suit accused detectives of excluding evidence that could have helped DuBoise — chiefly that they’d pressured their jailhouse witness to deliver a confession tale they knew to be false.

Lastly, DuBoise’s lawyers accused the Tampa Police Department of fostering policies in those years — official and unwritten — that led to badly trained officers violating DuBoise’s constitutional rights.

The retired detectives and the dentist all disputed in court that there was any evidence to support the claims.

“I’m just telling you, that whole lawsuit is accusing us of things that are not a word of truth,” Burke said by phone, “and I have no other comment.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (56)

The money wasn’t all about money. What he’d lost was clearly priceless. But DuBoise wanted recognition from the state that his life had value. And through the lawsuit, he wanted to show how a poor kid who didn’t even know enough to ask for a lawyer could get railroaded.

DuBoise attended mediations in the lawsuit, where dollar figures were negotiated and he felt like the defendants were trying to avoid admitting their mistakes. Settling the suit could mean a faster payday, but he hoped for a more public trial.

“So people know,” he said. “So that it doesn’t happen again.”

REOPENING GRAMS

In 2020, new detectives went searching for Barbara Grams’ true killers with a leg up on their predecessors: DNA implicating convicted killers Abron Scott and Amos Robinson.

Further testing of Grams’ rape kit had shown that not only was Robinson’s DNA present — Scott’s was, too.

Yet as they interviewed more than a dozen people, detectives seemed reluctant to move past the idea of DuBoise’s guilt. They often left interviewees with the impression that’s who they were after, even still.

“(DuBoise) got out,” state investigator Chuck Massucci said while interrogating an old friend of DuBoise’s, Ray Garcia. “I don’t know how to say it nicely, other than bullsh*t.”

Cops in the 1980s had theorized that DuBoise, Garcia and DuBoise’s brother, Victor, killed Grams. The other men were never prosecuted.

Massucci showed Garcia a photo of the mark on Grams’ cheek. “I’m all about reasonable doubt,” he said. “But that’s his f*cking teeth mark.”

Every now and then, detectives would grasp a scrap of intrigue, like a mall worker who remembered a man talking to Grams the last night she saw her. Forty years on, the coworker believed it was DuBoise, though this was the first she’d mentioned it.

Mostly, though, their old theory led to dead ends.

The investigators interviewed Victor DuBoise at an Alabama jail shortly before he went to prison in an unrelated manslaughter case. In his youth, Victor had been deemed intellectually disabled. He answered slowly as the cops prodded him fruitlessly about the Grams killing, and others, seemingly struggling to understand.

When investigators met with Robinson, they pressed for connections between him and DuBoise, again getting nothing.

It could be easy to write off the cops’ doubts as a reluctance to concede their predecessors’ mistakes, but there could be consequences. A defense lawyer might seize on their skepticism to undermine the cases against Robinson and Scott.

Meanwhile, in the light of the present day, the evidence used against DuBoise in the 1980s looked ever weaker.

“Today, I would never say what I said 37 years ago,” Richard Souviron, the dentist who’d matched DuBoise’s teeth, told the Times after DuBoise’s exoneration. Though he still wouldn’t rule DuBoise out, “There could have been a million other people whose teeth fit.”

The science had been new at the time, he said, and he was wrong to make a definitive judgment. Within 10 years of the DuBoise case, he’d changed his thinking on matches. He no longer believes bite mark comparison is useful in identifying suspects, only in excluding them. It was painful, he said, to know he helped send an innocent man to prison.

However, the dentist flatly denies conspiring with the police or fabricating anything. He called those claims in DuBoise’s lawsuit “baloney.”

The gas station clerk who’d pointed detectives toward DuBoise said she never meant to suggest the teenage troublemaker might be a murderer. “Tell him I’m sorry,” she said.

Joanne “Josie” Suarez, the woman who’d led DuBoise to his arrest, moved far from Tampa, married and raised a family — a world apart from that “very low point in my life” in the ‘80s when she’d been “on heavy, heavy drugs” to cope with the scars of a near-fatal crash. Though she’d testified differently, she insisted now that the ring police showed her — the one they said was missing from Grams’ finger — was not the same one she’d once seen DuBoise wearing.

“If he really didn’t do it,” she said, “it’s terrible what happened to him.”

And then there was Claude Butler, the jailhouse witness. He’d stuck to his story for decades, but in 2022 Butler told DuBoise’s civil lawyers he was ready to unburden himself.

He said he’d lied.

Butler felt “squeezed from both sides” in 1984 when two detectives visited him as he awaited trial for kidnapping and robbery. He was 21 and facing life. The detectives told him how DuBoise committed the crime, he said, and offered help.

So Butler cozied up to DuBoise by offering him pills, he said, and cigarettes lit off electrical outlets. He waited for DuBoise to admit his crime, but DuBoise said nothing.

“Other than he wasn’t guilty,” Butler said. “You’d hear him saying that all the time.”

When Butler got cold feet about testifying, he said prosecutor Mark Ober promised to get him released if he went through with it, which Ober vehemently denies, saying Butler’s small-time charges virtually guaranteed an early release.

“Have I always felt bad about it? Yes,” Butler said. “I had to pick the worst of two evils.”

A CONFESSION

After more than two years of prodding at the Grams case, investigators caught a break: a confession.

Abron Scott’s family urged him to say what he knew, so last year he laid it all out.

Scott was 58 now, graying, and wore glasses. But he remembered 1983.

He told investigators he’d seen Grams on North Boulevard. He and Robinson were alone, walking back from Robinson’s brother’s house.

“And Amos say, ‘Look at that bitch … I want to get her,’” Scott said. “He grabbed her arm.”

Robinson raped Grams behind the dentist’s office, he said, while Scott went around the side of the building and smoked a joint.

He said he heard a noise — “pap, pap, pap,” — and watched Robinson beat her with a board, “So the bitch won’t get up and run and tell.”

His guilty plea in both the Grams and Lansen murders would eventually buy him a deal: Prosecutors wouldn’t seek the death penalty. And he’d testify against his old friend, who awaits trial.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (57)

Scott told investigators he remembered driving Lansen, the photographer, out to a wooded area where the road dead-ended, near where he’d gone to elementary school, and looking on as Robinson shot her at close range.

As for Herminia Castro, Scott denied involvement, but he claimed Robinson had bragged about raping and killing her, then setting her car on fire.

“He had a hate,” Scott said of Robinson. “It was like he enjoyed doing what he was doing.”

Investigators pressed him on the unsolved case of a man hit with a hammer in a December 1982 robbery blocks from Robinson’s workplace. Before the victim died, he’d described two assailants. Scott said he didn’t remember such a thing, though he and Robinson did rob people.

Scott hadn’t known Grams was dead, he said, until months afterward, when Robinson told him he’d read in the paper that police arrested someone else. Robinson thought it was funny.

“It didn’t faze him,” Scott said. “I mean, he was happy. Bragged about what he did. And he was happy that they got the wrong dude.”

LIFE AFTER THE MONEY

In the summer of 2023, DuBoise became a millionaire — the Florida Legislature had voted to pay him the $1.85 million he was owed — but he stayed in the little shack at the Sunny Center, feeding the cats and possums on his doorstep. He drywalled the country club building where the golf carts were stored, never considering playing nine holes himself.

If he wasn’t working maintenance at the club, he was fixing something at one of Wheeler’s properties, doing free renovations at the Sunny Center or making repairs at a friend or family member’s place.

He drove one neighbor’s kids to school, shopped for another who was elderly and checked in on the guy next door with COVID. He drove to Jacksonville to testify as a character witness when a man he knew from prison was up for resentencing.

Any perceived injustice makes him restless. When an acquaintance mentioned her movers were gouging her on fees, he drove her rental truck to Michigan himself. When he met a woman in a Clearwater parking lot who’d been towed despite paying, he waited for hours to record the tow truck doing it again.

The idea of relaxation almost confused him. “I just don’t really care to do that,” he said. People invited him to do things for fun, like take a boat ride on the bay, but he declined. A nice restaurant meal? “I tried it, but once was really enough.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (58)

He checked up on his mother, for whom it seemed he was always making appointments or sending an Uber Eats order. He talked to her physical therapists and installed a camera so he and his sister could see if she needed something. She’d told the parole board she needed his help years ago. He could finally be there.

His demeanor remained, typically, Zen-like. He’d become practiced at telling his story with gravity — the shock of arrest, surreality of trial and horror of death row. How he’d focused on work and wrote his letters until someone listened. How could he be anything but grateful?

He’d been asked the same questions so many times, he hardly seemed to think about the answers, unless he was asked something new, like, “What moment in your life would you relive, if you could, to change it?”

DuBoise leaned back on his love seat and thought.

When he was 17, he said, he’d had a 19-year-old girlfriend. They spent whole days watching black-and-white Bogie and Bacall movies. One day they were supposed to hang out, but he wanted to work on a mullet boat. She told him, “If you leave, that’s it.” He didn’t believe her, so he went fishing. But she’d meant it.

Or maybe he’d relive the day he tried to join the Army. They told him to come back when he turned 18, but he could have joined with his parents’ signature. He could have been shipped far, far away.

“Maybe,” he said. “But it don’t bother me.”

One friend attributed the way DuBoise lives to his Christianity. “He doesn’t talk about it much,” said Rick Bishop, a coworker at the country club who also served time with DuBoise, “but he walks it.”

Some friends and family wondered whether he’d fully processed his experiences. He was, said one former Innocence Project employee, thriving more than most. One 2022 study showed more than half of exonerees exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Asked if he’d ever talked to a therapist, Duboise responded, “What happened, happened.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (59)

He wanted a partner who’d make a good mother, he said, but he had not dated in his three years free. “I can’t even think about that yet.”

The things that brought DuBoise satisfaction were ordinary — finishing a job, taking a drive, feeding the cats, helping his mom. All he ever wanted was a normal life.

He still woke before sunrise on full alert. He could still tick off the names of every guy on his wing of death row. In his mostly empty refrigerator sat the cheese that still constituted most of his meals, still eaten alone in a safe space. He’d upgraded, slightly, from the processed American singles of prison to Member’s Mark natural cheddar.

THE PROSECUTORS

When Mark Ober won the trial that sent DuBoise to prison, police gave him a set of plaster teeth left over from the investigation. He kept it on his desk for decades, even after he was elected state attorney.

If he still ran things, Ober would not have freed DuBoise just because someone else’s DNA was found on the murder victim. Yes, Ober told the Times, he knows bite mark evidence is now “controversial.” He downplayed the science but stressed that it remains admissible in all 50 states. Yes, he knew the jailhouse informant had recanted, but only after DuBoise’s lawyers “got to him.” Yes, in his time as a defense lawyer, he’d seen people he believed were innocent go to prison. But not in this case.

Ober had taken DuBoise’s exoneration personally, partly because Andrew Warren, the outsider who’d upset Ober in the 2016 election, had led the way.

“I’ve had an honorable career,” Ober said last year in DuBoise’s lawsuit. He felt Warren had questioned his integrity via DuBoise’s exoneration — particularly offensive since Warren, who Ober likes to say has never tried a case in state court, “couldn’t try his way out of a paper bag.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (60)

Ober believes in the system of appeals. In his mind, Warren created the conviction review unit, a flashy way to sidestep all that procedure, to get votes. If new evidence had emerged in the DuBoise case, he said, DuBoise’s lawyer could have simply pushed for a new trial.

But DuBoise says the evidence would have never been discovered without the conviction review unit cutting through the red tape. That he’d lost decades of his life just trying to find a lawyer. That he’d begged for DNA testing all the way back in 2008.

“He has no clue about real life,” DuBoise said of Ober. “He just thinks about courtrooms.”

What if Ober had to mount a new case against DuBoise today? With his best evidence tossed out, he might drop the charges, he said — but not necessarily. “It’d be razor-thin,” Ober said, but he could still make a case for DuBoise’s guilt.

Whatever fueled Ober’s comments, whether high-minded philosophies on the law or resentment for a political foe, it’s clear that local politics influence an innocent person’s chances of going free.

Warren had hoped the conviction review unit would thrive through greater cooperation with police, but his progressive ambitions turned off much of the Tampa criminal justice establishment.

Brian Dugan, Tampa’s police chief at the time, said he was skeptical of DuBoise’s innocence simply because of Warren’s involvement. “If that guy cured cancer,” Dugan said of Warren, “I’d be like, ‘You’re gonna have to prove it to me.’”

If Warren’s rise felt like it came out of the blue, it ended even more abruptly. On the morning of Aug. 4, 2022, as Warren watched a grand jury indict the alleged true killers in the Grams case, he got an email: You’ve been suspended.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (61)

Gov. Ron DeSantis had yanked Warren from office, citing his statements in support of abortion seekers and transgender people, as well as his reluctance to prosecute certain nonviolent crimes. Though a deputy escorted Warren from the building, he still went on TV later to announce the murder charges — the press conference DuBoise had seen at the truck stop.

In Warren’s place, DeSantis appointed political ally Suzy Lopez, another prosecutor who has raised doubts about DuBoise’s innocence. She recently approached a Times reporter in a courthouse hallway and suggested the presence of Robinson’s DNA didn’t mean DuBoise wasn’t also at the murder scene. She quipped, “You should ask the (Tampa Police Department) what they think of the DuBoise case.”

Asked if the state attorney’s office stands behind DuBoise’s exoneration, a spokesperson said Lopez believes in thorough conviction reviews but felt her predecessor’s handling of the DuBoise case fell short. She criticized Warren for not personally speaking to the prosecutor or detectives from 1983.

DuBoise shudders now when he thinks about how small the window was for his release.

THE STATE OF CONVICTION REVIEWS

The state attorney’s conviction review unit has gotten less of a spotlight since Lopez took over.

The unit has not alerted the media when its investigations have led to a rare prisoner release. The reasons are unclear, though past news coverage has prompted waves of prisoners to seek reviews.

“Our focus is seeking justice,” said a state attorney’s spokesperson, “not creating headlines.”

Few, then, heard about Cornelius Marion, who walked free in 2023 after serving 33 years for a Tampa robbery. His attorney highlighted procedural flaws in the police investigation, particularly in a photo lineup shown to the only witness. The state attorney’s office agreed to release Marion with time served but would not overturn his conviction. He remains a felon, ineligible for money from the state.

Two other prisoners have been freed under Lopez, both with time served.

Seth Miller, a lawyer and executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said cooperation between their lawyers and the state attorney’s office “tapered off” after Warren’s removal. He stressed that he wants to work with Lopez.

“Under whatever leadership is there now, we don’t have any collaborations,” Miller said.

That’s not true, said a spokesperson for the state attorney’s office. The Innocence Project cut off communication in 2023, she said, upset over the outcome of a state attorney’s investigation into one of their clients.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (62)

Teresa Hall, who led conviction reviews during DuBoise’s exoneration, left the office last summer, after leaders said she was dishonest about a vacation taken while on paid medical leave. Asked about the state attorney’s suggestion that the DuBoise case wasn’t thoroughly re-investigated, Hall said, “I proudly stand by the work I did for the state attorney’s office.”

Her replacement left in February, and the office is again interviewing candidates. A spokesperson said a senior attorney is reviewing innocence cases in the interim.

In the meantime, the panel of former judges tasked with helping review cases has been disbanded, with plans for the new leader to refill the panel.

Lopez declined an interview with the Times. A spokesperson said conviction reviews remain a small but important part of her office’s work and that their procedures have not changed under Lopez.

“No one should be incarcerated for a crime they did not commit,” Lopez said in a written statement. “When our office learned of new information that eroded confidence in three previous convictions, we did the right thing and released them from prison.”

DuBoise still brings cookies to the State Attorney’s Office each year around Christmas.

He worries about the fate of the conviction review unit, about innocent people stuck in the bowels of the system, desperate for “that little flicker of light.”

FINDING HOME

In January, DuBoise finally got to put a dollar value on 37 lost years: $14 million.

When the Tampa City Council approved the settlement of his lawsuit, each member spoke dramatically of DuBoise’s tragedy. The city, the police and the dentist conceded no wrongdoing. Mayor Jane Castor, who previously served as the city’s top cop, said Tampa police have advanced “light years” in technology and training from the time of DuBoise’s arrest in the 1980s and that she hoped the settlement helped in his healing.

Though not the trial he’d imagined, it was a moment of public recognition. But DuBoise wasn’t there. He was driving east on Interstate 4, having promised to deliver a wheelchair lift to a friend flying into Orlando for a medical visit.

Soon after, he paid cash for a house in South Tampa: four bedrooms, a three-car garage and a heated pool that cost just under $1 million. He arrived on the day of the home inspection, smiling a little more than usual.

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (63)

The seller, a talkative firefighter, reclined on his remaining furniture and pointed out to DuBoise the zany comedy he was watching in which Will Ferrell is wrongly sentenced to 10 years in prison and hires Kevin Hart to toughen him up. DuBoise glanced at the screen and turned away.

The seller ribbed DuBoise that his soon-to-be neighbor had inquired about whether DuBoise was good-looking. Then he tried to show DuBoise a photo of a woman he’d dated. DuBoise ignored all of that, politely, and talked about some light fixtures he planned to switch out.

Yes, he’d be moving in by himself, DuBoise told the man. Yeah, maybe he’d get a dog, but he had bigger thoughts about filling the home. No, he said, he wasn’t worried about meeting a woman. Yes, he politely answered, prison food was bad.

DuBoise walked off, down a hallway and into one of the bedrooms, where he stood looking.

“A boy and a girl, maybe,” he said, “like siblings who were going to get split up. I could adopt them and keep them together.”

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (64)

DuBoise was free to pursue his life as he wanted for what remained of it. In that moment, he chose to live with hope. DuBoise, months shy of 60, felt like it was all beginning.

He’d still go to work, but maybe take on less, coming home to jump in that pool. He’d learn to prepare more than cheese sandwiches in his big kitchen with the island, because he’d have to provide for more than himself. It’d be a normal life. He’d never expected more.

Your support makes a difference

Projects like this are only possible with your support. Please consider subscribing or making a tax-deductible donation to the Times Journalism Fund.

Donate Gain unlimited access

The Marked Man is based on more than a year of research and reporting by Tampa Bay Times staff writers Christopher Spata and Dan Sullivan. The reporters reviewed over 11,000 pages of documents and spoke with more than 50 people, including 25 hours of interviews with Robert DuBoise.

The Times reviewed DuBoise’s 1985 trial transcript and myriad other court, prison and parole commission records. Reporters reviewed the Innocence Project’s petition to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office conviction review unit and the findings of that office’s investigation by attorney Teresa Hall, as well as reports documenting the DNA testing. Additional details came from testimony in DuBoise’s federal lawsuit against the city of Tampa.

To chronicle the murders of 1983 and the ongoing prosecutions, the Times reviewed investigative reports by Tampa Police and sheriff’s offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, along with public records from the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office.

Details about Robinson and Scott’s personal histories came from various records and transcripts from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and county clerk of court, the Florida Archives, the state Department of Corrections and courts in Escambia and Washington counties.

To find details and verify recollections about events and places from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the reporters drew from archives of the Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post, Florida Today, Fox 13 Tampa Bay and the Charleston Evening and Columbia Record newspapers in South Carolina. Other information came from the NFL Network, lawyers and a former Florida prison warden.

About the reporters

Christopher Spata

is an enterprise reporter covering Florida culture. Read more.

Dan Sullivan

is a criminal justice reporter. Read more.

Additional credits

PHOTOGRAPHERS: Jefferee Woo, Martha Asencio-Rhine, Ivy Ceballo

PHOTO EDITOR: Martha Asencio-Rhine

ILLUSTRATIONS: Sean Kristoff-Jones

ANIMATIONS: Aya Diab

PRINT DESIGN: Sean Kristoff-Jones, Beth McCoy

DIGITAL DESIGN: Justinian Hatfield, Jason Katzwinkel, Sean Kristoff-Jones

COPY EDITOR: Amy Gehrt

ENGAGEMENT: Alexandra Urban, Neha Seenarine, Aya Diab, Hannah Farrow, Meaghan Habuda, Jenna Duncan

EDITORS: Claire McNeill, Mark Katches, Chris Tisch, Carolyn Fox

PROJECT MANAGER: Claire McNeill

The life sentence of Robert DuBoise (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Geoffrey Lueilwitz

Last Updated:

Views: 6245

Rating: 5 / 5 (60 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Geoffrey Lueilwitz

Birthday: 1997-03-23

Address: 74183 Thomas Course, Port Micheal, OK 55446-1529

Phone: +13408645881558

Job: Global Representative

Hobby: Sailing, Vehicle restoration, Rowing, Ghost hunting, Scrapbooking, Rugby, Board sports

Introduction: My name is Geoffrey Lueilwitz, I am a zealous, encouraging, sparkling, enchanting, graceful, faithful, nice person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.