Time and freedom, together, are essential to form a desirable human existence. The system robbed Robert DuBoise of both and left him with nothing.
For 37 years, a man spent his days in prison for a crime he did not commit. Such a tale is far too common in the United States’ current legal system. Such an experience would break any person, even the strongest. DuBoise instead repaired the very edifices that imprisoned him, while pursuing justice.
On Monday night, the Tampa, Florida, native will watch from the stands as the Buccaneers host the Los Angeles Rams, completing his journey from death row to freedom. He’ll enter the stadium as a special guest of the Bucs and walk – unsupervised, wrists unshackled, feet unbound – to his seat in Section 118, accompanied by three guests.
The Buccaneers had existed for barely seven seasons when DuBoise was sent to jail in 1983. Raymond James Stadium, more than 20 years old now, was 15 years away from opening its doors.
“It’s the first football game I’ve ever gone to,” DuBoise, 56, told USA TODAY Sports by phone on Saturday. “First game I’ve ever gone to, period.”
There have been a lot of “firsts” for DuBoise over the last three months, going back to his release on Aug. 27 from Hardee Correctional Institute in Bowling Green, Florida.
There he fell into the embraces of his mother, Myra, and his sister, Harriett. Susan Friedman, his lawyer at the Innocence Project — the non-profit legal organization that exonerates wrongfully convicted individuals — broke into a smile so big it could be seen despite her wearing a mask. Friedman and DuBoise went to CVS that night for toiletries and to Target the next day for more living supplies. Less than three weeks later, the courts fully exonerated DuBoise of all charges.
“Everything was like it is now,” DuBoise said. “Beautiful.”
The night of Aug. 18, 1983, 19-year-old Barbara Grams was raped and murdered in Tampa. DuBoise, then 18, and his friends often hung out at Hutto’s Corner, a grocer near the scene of the crime (although Myra would testify that DuBoise was home that evening). Investigators found what they believed to be a bite mark on Grams’ cheek and began asking men of interest, including DuBoise,to make beeswax molds of their mouths to determine whether there was a match. A forensic dentist identified DuBoise as the one who left the mark on Grams. No other DNA evidence — fingerprints, hair, etc. — placed DuBoise at the crime scene. As DuBoise awaited trial, an inmate at Hillsborough County Jail named Claude Butler told a detective that DuBoise allegedly spoke of sex with a woman but denied killing her.
The verdict: guilty of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery. While the jury unanimously recommended life in prison, a judge condemned DuBoise to death.
“Robert was only 18 when he went to prison,” Friedman told USA TODAY Sports. “He basically went from high school to death row. It’s unconscionable what happened to him, based on the evidence that the prosecution had.”
He spent three years on death row. Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy had a cell near his during that time. DuBoise wasn’t afraid of dying, but would wake up every day hoping it was all a bad dream.
The nightmare continued instead. As time passed, DuBoise’s sole focus became proving his innocence. His case remained in the hands of the public defender’s office, which concentrated its efforts on removing DuBoise from death row. In 1988, DuBoise was removed from death row, but the life sentence plus 15 years still attached to his name disturbed DuBoise. He was upset by what he saw as a half-measure — that they didn’t pursue freedom on his behalf.
DuBoise sent letters to every media outlet he thought would find his story intriguing, including 20/20, 60 Minutes and 48 Hours. He never received a response. Somebody recommended he read “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham. The book taught him about the Innocence Project. He wrote to them and finally received a correspondence.
The parole hearings routinely went poorly. DuBoise would be asked to explain the case. He would be asked about remorse.
“I can’t tell you I’m remorseful for something I didn’t do,” DuBoise would always say. The hearing would then abruptly end.
When he left the room following his meeting in 2018, he pressed his palms together in prayer and said, “God, I put it in your hands.”
The next morning, May 17, he opened Friedman’s letter, which contained positive news for DuBoise.
Finally, someone aside from his fellow inmates had listened: Friedman and the Innocence Project would take the case.
Two tell-tale signs of a wrongful conviction revealed themselves to Friedman: flawed evidence analysis and an unreliable informant. First, the use of bite marks as evidence has been “debunked,” the attorney said. According to analysis by the Innocence Project, at least 26 people nationally have been wrongfully convicted based on bite mark evidence, and a National Institutes of Health study from 2017 notes the intrinsic difference between bite mark comparison and bite mark analysis within the legal system.
Secondly, the testimony of Butler, who had reason to cooperate and was given a plea deal on a life sentence himself, should have been scrutinized closer.
DuBoise had filed on his own for post-conviction DNA testing in 2006, but he was told the evidence related to his case had been destroyed in 1990 — just five years after his conviction, which took Friedman by surprise.
“One of the biggest challenges we face at the Innocence Project is finding the physical evidence in a case,” she said. “More times than we like, we see the evidence has been destroyed previously.”
DuBoise endured the unimaginable while away. He watched fellow inmates on death row walk to their executions. He witnessed stabbings. He ached for his family, who couldn’t even so much as hold his hand during visits at some prisons. He felt his mother’s anguish as she aged, believing her son to be innocent but too paralyzed by the legal system to do much about it.
All of that could have sunk DuBoise, who said his Christian identity uplifted him.
“It gets exhausting going through it,” he said. “Like I said, I kept my faith. I just couldn’t allow my faith to waiver. Because if that happened, then depression comes and all that. I’ve seen too many things in prison and how many people fell into depression, some of them went into hatefulness just because they build up so much hatred for the system and untrust (sic) for everybody. It can really play a part on your mentality.”
Friedman says DuBoise’s outlook on life is typical of an exoneree.
“I think one of the things that I’ve learned in the close to 10 years I’ve been doing this work is that people who have been wrongfully convicted, like Robert, they are all incredibly patient,” she said. “I always say I learn so much from each of them about patience and kindness and forgiveness.”
Bucs’ commitment to social justice
One of the many tragedies in DuBoise’s story is that it is an not isolated one. It’s why the Innocence Project exists, although Friedman and DuBoise yearn for the day it is out of business.
“Every case is unique and heartbreaking and raises different issues in the criminal legal system,” Friedman said. “What’s wonderful here is that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw there was an injustice in their own community and stepped up to help, to provide assistance in that situation. That’s pretty remarkable and that says a lot about their commitment to social justice.”
Not long before DuBoise’s release, Ali Marpet read an opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times by Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin, whose story originally connected the Buccaneers offensive lineman to the Innocence Project. Aguirre-Jarquin described how he’d been wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years, 10 of those on death row, for a double murder he did not commit. After the Florida Supreme Court overturned his conviction, the state attorney retried him, causing him to spend two extra years in jail. During that time, he missed the 90-day window to file for compensation from the state.
While Florida is one of 35 states with compensation laws, the Sunshine state’s is one of the most restrictive; five of the 31 convicted Floridians exonerated since the law passed in 2008 have been awarded compensation through the law.
The reasons largely include the unreasonable deadline, which has burdened Aguirre-Jarquin, and the “clean hands” provision. That stipulation denies compensation for any exoneree with more than one non-violent felony. As a 17-year-old, DuBoise was charged with two non-violent felonies —related to stealing car parts and not serious enough to warrant more than probation — prohibiting him from the $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment.
Conversations revolving around social justice are not uncommon in the Buccaneers’ offensive line room. After hearing about Aguirre-Jarquin’s plight, Marpet began discussing the compensation restrictions with fellow linemen Donovan Smith and Alex Cappa.
Marpet, Smith, cornerback Carlton Davis and punter Bradley Pinion currently comprise the four-member executive board of the Buccaneers’ Social Justice Initiative, started in 2018 to increase meaningful change in police relations, criminal justice reform, racial equality and youth empowerment in Tampa.
When Marpet — not made available for this story as he will miss his third straight game with a concussion — discovered DuBoise’s case months later, he huddled with teammates once again. They decided to support DuBoise financially, with Marpet, Smith, Cappa and wide receiver Mike Evans combining to donate $25,000.
“This man’s life was taken away from him. It’s unimaginable,” Evans said in a message through a team spokesman. “You can’t replace years lost, but you can try to lift him up and help him see better days ahead.”
The players are also in the beginning stages of cultivating a relationship with DuBoise. The trio (minus Evans) met with him last Wednesday for about 30 minutes.
“We discussed (the case) a lot, me, Ali, some of the other guys. But when you actually speak to a guy, you really become speechless,” Cappa told USA TODAY Sports. “What do you say? What do you ask? You can’t even console this guy, because you can’t even imagine what he’s been through, you know what I mean? It’s pretty shocking.”
On the Zoom call, DuBoise and the players discussed his case. They relayed their shock and perturbance toward the injustice done toward him and invited him to Monday’s game.
“I was just really amazed that they wanted to reach out like that,” DuBoise said. “That was really nice, just to see that they care enough to get involved.”
“You almost couldn’t describe the feeling, because it was almost kind of like you’re excited but then you hear the story about some of the things he went through and it’s ‘Dang,’” Smith told USA TODAY Sports. “You’re sad and you feel for him.”
The racial reckoning in the U.S. and spotlight on the criminal justice system have empowered players across all sports and levels to use their platforms as professional athletes to impact positive change.
“You got to start somewhere,” Smith said. “It’s definitely one of those things where a lot of people can sit there and talk about things, but what actions can we take to support or start working towards change?”
Assisting DuBoise financially and pressuring lawmakers to address the compensation rules is one way.
So is the Buccaneers’ Youth Leadership Program.
In its first year, the program pairs 25 Tampa Bay players and staff with students at Young Middle Magnet School in East Tampa. Cappa has mentored the same three kids each week this school year and “getting to talk to (them) has been awesome.” The group also coordinated Hillsborough County Court bail hearing visitations. The impersonality of the proceedings rubbed Cappa the wrong way.
“When you hear about something like Robert’s case, you wonder, ‘How did it get there?’” Cappa said. “So going to the court last year and seeing one step of that, it’s all just very eye-opening.”
Whether it’s a player for the Buccaneers or anyone else, the sympathy of others makes DuBoise emotional.
“It’s just amazing how many good people there really are in the world. I mean I’ve always known there’s good people,” he said. “But just to see them wanting to get involved just because they’ve read (about) my case, or seen it on the news, and it’s just really special. It’s a special feeling.”
‘Can’t think about tomorrow yet’
In prison, DuBoise worked maintenance, usually on call 24 hours a day. He provided services in the courtyard and the kitchen. Working with his hands gave him some peace of mind. Some of the skills he’d learned before entering, and he gained the rest along the way. That led to DuBoise becoming popular among other prisoners.
“If their light wasn’t working, I fixed it,” he said. “If their toilet wasn’t working, I fixed it. If their air wasn’t working, I fixed it.”
Although he’s currently living at the Sunny Center, a charity that houses wrongfully convicted people upon their release, perhaps he’ll soon make repairs on a house of his own. A house with a backyard he could retreat to relax in the shade after work. One he would have liked to fill with a wife and children, but one he could entertain the family he’s been trying to see as often as possible.
He’s still fixing things, but instead of in prison, it’s to help alleviate costs for family and friends. There are job offers on the table, but right now, DuBoise is taking it “one day at a time” — a favorite go-to phrase for athletes as they progress through a season. The approach is also how DuBoise confronted incarceration.
“That’s all you can do,” he said. “One day at a time. Can’t think about tomorrow yet.”
DuBoise might be wrong there. For him, tomorrow no longer represents another day of injustice. Tomorrow is freedom. Tomorrow is exoneration. Tomorrow is innocence. And for one night, it’s a football game, played by a few other people doing their best to right the wrongs of the world.