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Robert DuBoise

Other Florida DNA Exonerations
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At 8 a.m. on August 19, 1983, the body of 19-year-old Barbara Grams was found outside a dentist office on North Boulevard in the Tampa Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.

Grams was nude except for a tube top that had been pulled down past her chest. Her face and jaw had been beaten, and she was covered in blood, with scrapes and tears on her neck. She also had bruises on her limbs that appeared to have been made by the pressure of her attacker’s fingers.

Grams worked at the Hot Potato Restaurant in a shopping center about two miles away, and a co-worker told police that she and Grams had closed up just after 9 p.m. on August 18. Grams lived not far from where her body was found, and she often walked home along busy Buffalo Avenue.

Two friends told investigators they saw Grams walking down North Boulevard at 9:30 p.m., just a few blocks from her house, but already several blocks south of the dentist’s office. That led police to believe that she might have decided to get a pack of cigarettes at one of the convenience stores clustered at the intersection of Buffalo Avenue and North Boulevard.

As police searched the crime scene, they found several pieces of two-by-fours with blood and hair, which led them to believe these were the murder weapons. Detective Philip Saladino, the lead investigator, also noticed a white circle on a finger on Grams’s left hand that appeared to be a ring mark. No ring was found, and witnesses would later give conflicting statements about what type of ring Grams wore and whether Grams was wearing a ring on the night of her attack. Police would also collect fingerprints from a nearby air-conditioner and from Grams’s wallet.

Dr. Lee Miller, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy on August 20. He concluded that Grams had died from blunt force trauma to the head, most likely around 11:30 p.m. on August 18.

He collected materials for a rape kit, as well as hair, blood and fingernail scrapings. In addition, he collected vaginal samples of what he called a “white fluid.”

Miller would later testify that he noticed what he believed to be a bite mark on Grams’s left cheek as he was washing the blood from the young woman’s face. He stopped his washing and then swabbed the area with a saline solution to potentially identify saliva from the assailant.

Miller called Dr. Richard Powell, a local dentist who had been classified as forensic odontologist by Miller’s office. Powell was not certified in this specialty, and this was his first criminal case. Powell took a Polaroid photo of the mark and told Miller that it might be from someone missing upper front teeth, specifically a left front incisor. Powell said he could see tear marks and also added that it was his opinion that the six lower teeth had no gaps.

A few days later, Miller cut out a section of Grams’s cheek and placed it in formaldehyde, which caused the tissue to shrink about 10 percent in size.

Quickly, the Tampa police reached out to Dr. Richard Souviron, a dentist in Coral Gables, Florida, who was a leading forensic odontologist. He had gained fame as a prosecution witness at the 1979 trial of Ted Bundy. Souviron advised Saladino to use beeswax to make bite mark impressions from potential suspects. These molds would then be filled with a composite to make a hard cast that could be compared against the photograph of Grams’s cheek. The process destroys the original beeswax mold. Saladino had ready access to beeswax because a police captain was a beekeeper. One report would later state that Saladino and other officers might have created as many as 100 beeswax molds from potential suspects.

Souviron came to Tampa on September 8 and examined the tissue that Miller had preserved. Like Powell, he said police should look for a suspect with a missing tooth or a large gap or a tooth turned to the side.

Saladino and other officers continued to pursue leads. A man whom Grams casually dated came under suspicion. So did a neighbor who sold her diet pills. Both gave Saladino dental impressions and were ruled out by Souviron. There were no apparent eyewitnesses to the crime; one woman said she heard a scream between 10-11 p.m.

Very early in the investigation, Saladino talked with a woman who worked at a convenience store near the dentist’s office for a few weeks in February 1983. She didn’t recognize Grams, but she told Saladino about several people who “caused problems” at the store. She knew their names only as “Ray, Robert and Bo,” but she pointed the police toward a nearby house. It was vacant, but there was mail in the mailbox addressed to several people named DuBoise.

A records check of that name turned up brothers Victor and Robert DuBoise. Robert was then 18 years old. He had two convictions for minor non-violent crimes and was on probation. Saladino eventually caught up with Robert DuBoise on September 25. DuBoise told the officer that he had heard Saladino was trying to take bite mark impressions from everyone, and that he had “nothing to hide” and could prove that “he wasn’t the guy who bit that girl.”

DuBoise’s parents told Saladino that they believed both Robert and Victor were home on August 18, but that if they had gone out, it was to go look for their sister, who was reported missing on August 16. Myra DuBoise would repeat this account several times to Saladino.

DuBoise had no gaps in his upper or lower rows of teeth and agreed to give Saladino a dental impression. Souviron received DuBoise’s cast from a beeswax mold in mid-October, and he told Saladino on October 21 or 21 that DuBoise made the bite marks found on Grams.

On October 22, 1983, an officer found DuBoise at the Peter Pan Motel and told him that Saladino needed to speak with him. DuBoise arrived at the police station around 3:20 a.m., and waited for about an hour. He was then arrested, and charged with murder and attempted sexual battery. On October 23, Powell made a second mold of his teeth, this time using a sturdier substance then beeswax. It was sent to Souviron, who again said it was his opinion that DuBoise had bitten Grams and left the mark on her cheek.

At the time of DuBoise’s arrest, a man named Claude Butler was also in the Hillsborough County Jail. Butler was charged with kidnapping and armed robbery, plus other charges for probation violation and assault on a law-enforcement officer. If convicted, he faced a possibility of two life sentences. Both Butler and DuBoise had psychiatric issues, and they ended up in the section of the jail designated for inmates living with a mental illness.

In November 1983, Butler approached Detective John Counsman, to whom he had provided information in the past. Counsman introduced Butler to Saladino, and in January 1984, Butler told Saladino that DuBoise had admitted that he, his brother Victor DuBoise, and a friend named Raymond Garcia raped and murdered Grams after they tried to rob her and she put up a fight. Victor and Garcia were never charged. After giving a statement to an assistant prosecutor on April 19, 1984, Butler pled guilty to his own charges on May 14. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

A second witness, Joanne Suarez, told police that DuBoise had said to her in August 1983 that he had killed someone. Suarez also said that she might have seen DuBoise with a ring similar to one worn by Grams.

DuBoise’s trial in Hillsborough County’s circuit court began on February 25, 1985. Just 12 days earlier, another prosecution witness had emerged. Jack Andrusckiewiecz told police that he was living at the Peter Pan Motel at the time DuBoise was arrested. A few days before the arrest, Andrusckiewiecz said, he had seen DuBoise at a party looking angry. He said he asked DuBoise what the problem was, and DuBoise replied that he was wanted for murder.

In opening statements, Assistant State Attorney Mark Ober laid out the state’s case. “Through that crime scene and through that investigation and in this man’s fit of violent rage he left a very valuable piece of evidence, a unique piece of evidence which was unique to Detective Saladino, was unique to Dr. Lee Robert Miller of the Medical Examiner’s Office, and it was unique to me as a prosecutor — it was a bite mark on the left cheek of her face.”

Souviron walked jurors through this forensic evidence. He said that he had a “reasonable degree of dental certainty” that DuBoise made the bite mark. During cross-examination, Souviron was asked about a statement he made at police chief’s conference in November 1984, where he told attendees, “If you tell me that is the guy that did it, I will go into court and say that that is the guy that did it.” Souviron acknowledged making the statement.

Separately, the defense had its own forensic expert, Dr. Norman Sperber, who was chairman of the bite mark guideline committee for the American Board of Forensic Odontology. (Souviron was also a member of the group.) Sperber testified that DuBoise should be excluded as the source of the bite mark because there were too many inconsistencies between his teeth and the bite mark supposedly found on Grams’s cheek. No other forensic evidence tied DuBoise to the crime scene. He, his brother, and Garcia were all excluded as the source of the fingerprints collected from the air conditioner and Grams’s wallet.

Butler testified that DuBoise confessed his involvement, telling him that he and Garcia and Victor were trying to rob Grams, but she fought back and then yelled out Garcia’s name. (A later investigation would show Grams and Garcia had no connection.) Butler said DuBoise told him that they forced Grams into a car, drove around, then raped her and killed her. DuBoise’s attorney tried to discredit Butler. He introduced evidence about the wide range of psychiatric medicines Butler was taking while in jail.

Although Butler had received only five years in prison on his charges, he testified that he had asked for nothing and been offered nothing in exchange for his testimony. He said he came forward because he didn’t condone violence against women and because he didn’t want DuBoise to take all the blame for the crime.

Saladino testified that he had never met Butler before Counsman made the introduction. That was false. He had been part of a sting operation that arrested Butler for burglary and related charges a year earlier.

Andrusckiewiecz testified about what he said DuBoise had told him. At the time of the trial, Andrusckiewiecz was also preparing to be a star witness in another murder trial, a case where there was the potential for him to be charged as an accessory. He was working closely with the State Attorney’s Office on that case, and his emergence as a witness in the DuBoise trial came through prosecutors rather than a police investigation. This was not disclosed at trial, and he was never charged in connection with that separate murder.

Suarez gave limited testimony. She could not recall much of the events and said she suffered from a traumatic brain injury.

DuBoise did not testify, but his mother did and provided an alibi for the night of the murder.

During closing arguments, Ober pointed to the strength of the forensic evidence and also vouched for Butler’s credibility, telling jurors that Butler had “received nothing” for his testimony.

DuBoise was convicted of capital murder and attempted sexual battery on March 7, 1985. The jury recommended a life sentence, but Judge Harry Lee Coe III overrode its recommendations and sentenced DuBoise to death in Florida’s electric chair.

DuBoise appealed. His attorneys argued, among other things, that the casts of his teeth made after his arrest were based on an illegal search. He also claimed that the use of any statements he might have made to Butler was unconstitutional because Butler was acting as agent for the state. DuBoise also asserted that Coe had abused his discretion when he overrode the jury’s sentencing recommendation.

Three years later, the Florida Supreme Court rejected most of his claims on appeal. While it acknowledged that the initial pre-arrest casts made from beeswax molds were not “scientifically reliable,” it said the casts made after his arrest were valid evidence because DuBoise consented to the procedure. (DuBoise had argued he was heavily medicated on an anti-psychotic at the time and unable to give consent.)

The court also said that the state’s arrangement with Butler was proper. “This is not a case,” the court said, “where the police moved an informant into a defendant's cell for the express purpose of questioning the defendant. There is nothing to indicate that the authorities promised Butler any favorable treatment.”

While upholding the conviction, the court ruled that Coe had not given proper deference to the jury’s recommendation, because “reasonable people could differ regarding the propriety of sentencing DuBoise to death.” His sentence was changed to life without the possibility of parole for 25 years.

In 2006, DuBoise moved for post-conviction DNA testing. After a hearing, it was determined that all DNA evidence in his case had been destroyed in 1990. The court rejected his request to test other items, accepting the state’s argument that because DuBoise had committed the crime with others, any exculpatory evidence would not prove his innocence. Ober was now state attorney for Hillsborough County, having been elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004.

In 2018, the Innocence Project began representing DuBoise. Its investigation discovered that Butler’s five-year prison sentence was reduced to time served – only 13 months – after Ober filed a motion to mitigate on Butler’s behalf in June 1985. DuBoise’s attorneys also uncovered the undisclosed relationship between Andrusckiewiecz and prosecutors on the unrelated murder. Ober had said during closing arguments that he had no previous contact with Butler, and that “We made no promises to him […] we did nothing for him. He asked nothing.” But that turned out to be false. Ober had overseen the indictment on one of the charges Butler had pled to. It’s not clear whether Ober actually met with Butler prior to the DuBoise trial.

DuBoise’s attorneys turned over this evidence to Andrew Warren, who had narrowly defeated Ober in 2016 to become the new state attorney for Hillsborough County. His election platform included the establishment of a Conviction Review Unit, and this unit agreed on September 26, 2019 to reinvestigate DuBoise’s case.

The investigation also examined the validity of the forensic evidence used to convict DuBoise. In the years since the trial, forensic odontology has been widely discredited as a tool for making identifications based on bite mark analysis. Even the ABFO said it was no longer acceptable for its members to use language such as “reasonable medical/dental certainty.” A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences said that there was no scientific foundation to support the idea that human bite marks are unique or that skin is capable of faithfully recording those marks. (In April 2019, Souviron had recanted the testimony he gave for the prosecution at the trial of Gary Cifizzari.)

The CRU and the Innocence Project requested that Dr. Adam Freeman, a dentist and forensic odontologist, reexamine the forensic evidence used against DuBoise. Freeman said that Souviron’s conclusions of dental certainty – hammered home by Ober during closing arguments – had no basis in science. In addition, he said the preservation of the cheek tissue in formaldehyde made the sample ill-suited for comparison and that the use of beeswax for the initial molds led to distorted impressions. Perhaps most importantly, Freeman said that the mark on Grams’s cheek was not even a bite mark.

Separately, in August 2020, Teresa Hall, the CRU’s supervising attorney, located three slides from the rape kit performed by the medical examiner during the autopsy. They had been in the medical examiner’s office since 1983. These samples were quickly sent to a forensic laboratory and compared against a DNA sample provided by DuBoise. An analyst at the laboratory reported later that month that she could identify both a major and minor male contributor to the vaginal slide, but that DuBoise was excluded as either contributor. (Victor DuBoise and Garcia were also excluded.) This information was entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which returned a “presumptive hit” from the major contributor. Investigators found no connection between DuBoise and that person. He has not been named, but Warren’s office said the man posed no threat to the public, suggesting he is already in custody.

On August 26, Warren’s office filed a motion to reduce DuBoise’s sentence to time served. He was released from Hardee Correctional Institution that day.

“Despite all the safeguards in our system, when science tells us we have convicted the wrong person, we must listen and act,” Warren said. “It’s time to right a wrong that dates back 37 years.”

Souviron declined to be interviewed by Warren’s office. After DuBoise was released, Souviron said that his testimony was no longer correct. He told the Tampa Bay Times, “There could have been a million other people whose teeth fit.”

On September 10, DuBoise’s attorneys submitted a detailed motion to vacate his conviction. The state’s response, filed the next day, largely agreed with DuBoise’s motion, although it stopped short of saying that Butler and prosecutors had an agreement on what he would receive for his testimony against DuBoise.

Judge Christopher Nash granted the motion on September 14, 2020, and Warren’s office dismissed the charges that day.

Susan Friedman of the Innocence Project, who handled DuBoise’s case with local support from Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, told the Washington Post that DuBoise never gave up. “Robert constantly said to us: ‘What about the DNA? What about the DNA?’” Friedman said. “He knew that would prove his innocence and the question would be over. When I told him they found the [rape kit] slides, he was so happy he would finally be cleared.”

Because of his previous minor convictions, DuBoise does not qualify for compensation under Florida’s wrongful conviction statute. But the Florida legislature has approved separate payments for other ineligible exonerees.

Separately, Warren announced a partnership with the Innocence Project to review all past convictions in Hillsborough County that relied on bite mark evidence.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/23/2020
Last Updated: 9/23/2020
State:Florida
County:Hillsborough
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1983
Convicted:1985
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Death
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes