TAMPA, Fla. - At the age of 18, Robert DuBoise went to prison for a rape and murder he didn't commit. Now, after spending 37 years behind bars, a judge ruled Monday to exonerate the now 55-year-old man.
During the hearing, Judge Christopher Nash granted the motion to vacate DuBoise's life sentence, and to remove his name from the state's sex offender registry.
At the end of August, DuBoise was released from prison for "time served" after it was learned his conviction was no longer supported by evidence through a collaboration between the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office and the Innocence Project.
"I've always been pretty mistrusting of the system because I've had a lot of roadblocks thrown in my path," DuBoise said during the hearing, but that changed when he learned Innocence Project was taking on his case.
After that, he had hope.
Robert DuBoise speaks to local news outlets after he was released from prison on August 27. (FOX 13 News)
"There really are true, honest people in these offices now -- you included," DuBoise said to Judge Nash. "You got me out on the 27th. I'm just very grateful to every one of you."
DuBoise's nightmare began back in 1983 after he was accused of the brutal rape and murder of 20-year-old Barbara Grams. In 1985, he was convicted.
Since then, DuBoise sat in prison for decades despite proclaiming his innocence the whole time.
"He missed birthdays, holidays and the births of nieces, nephews and other loved ones. He lost his father," said Susan Friedman, an attorney with the Innocence Project. "Despite what he endured, he remained kind…and hopeful."
There was never much evidence against DuBoise in the first place. Prosecutors based their case on a testimony from a jailhouse snitch and a bite mark. That bite mark is ultimately what sent DuBoise to prison, but on August 27 it also became the evidence that set him free.
During DuBoise's trial, his defense called the bite mark "junk science," and now the scientific community is also in agreement. They say that bite mark evidence is just highly unreliable.
Robert DuBoise's booking image
State Attorney Andrew Warren said his department created a conviction review unit to look at questionable convictions while working with the Innocence Project. He said they identified DuBoise was wrongly convicted.
"A couple of weeks ago, we had DNA evidence that was never available at the time that conclusively proved that this man did not commit the heinous crime for which he was convicted," he explained. "Today, we finish the process by having him formally exonerated."
Warren’s office announced they plan to partner with the Innocence Project to review different cases in Hillsborough County, in which the defendant’s conviction was based partially on bite mark evidence.
They want to make sure that no one else experiences the same nightmare DuBoise experienced for nearly four decades.
"Going forward today, we're actually going to work with the Innocence Project to go back and look at all these cases, where bite marks analysis was used in the 80s or 90s, which has now been rejected as junk science," Warren explained. "We want to see if anyone else was convicted based on this problematic testimony and evidence."
Robert DuBoise during his trial
Even though DuBoise was allowed to go free at the end of August, Monday's court date was critical. If he wasn't exonerated, DuBoise would have had to register as a sex offender and disclose the murder conviction on applications for jobs and housing.
"This is one of those cases where we had a miscarriage of justice that, unfortunately, went on for nearly 40 years," Warren said.
Back then, a young assistant state attorney named Mark Ober, who later became the state attorney in Hillsborough County, admitted he didn't have much evidence on DuBoise.
Two weeks after he was freed from a Hardee County prison, DuBoise went before a judge Monday morning, and the judge granted his request and wiped his record clean.
As far as what's next for DuBoise, it's unclear what kind of future he may have.
During his time in prison, he developed some skills, and got a maintenance job while in prison.
"I think the most important thing for him is he has his freedom back," Warren said. "Now, we are going to be able to clear his name. There's nothing we can do to give back the 37 years that were wrongly taken away from him."
Finding and prosecuting the real perpetrator, Warren said, is now part of a new and ongoing investigation.
"Let's not forget the victim, a young woman who was murdered, her family has been given this false closure for 37 years about who committed this crime," Warren explained. "They're entitled to the truth as well. Once we are finished today, we can put all of our focus on holding the actual perpetrator accountable to give them the justice they deserve."
After vacating DuBoise's sentence, Judge Nash said the following:
"This court has failed you for 37 years. I think it would be reasonable to feel a lot of bitterness and resentment…but you seem to instead to have an uncommon capacity for grace and forgiving and I admire you for those qualities. I also admire you for the perseverance you have shown. I wish you well and the best going forward."