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Robert DuBoise's life has been returned to him after he spent almost four decades in prison for a murder he did not commit. Experiencing a rebirth of their own, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are helping the former death row inmate figure out what to do with it next.

By Jeffri Chadiha | Jan. 26, 2020

On the night of Nov. 23, as an excited crowd of 15,730 fans settled into their seats inside Raymond James Stadium, a 56-year-old man leaned over a railing and stared down into the tunnel where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gathered. He had thinning, grayish-black hair, and a pewter Bucs jersey bearing the No. 1 covered his slender torso. COVID-19 protocols stipulated that he keep his mouth and nose covered by a mask, but there was little doubt Robert DuBoise was smiling. After serving nearly 37 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, he was about to watch his first football game in person, as a special guest of the Buccaneers.

DuBoise's eyes lit up as the players huddled together before jogging out to face the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football. He scanned the group in search of Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa, two Bucs guards who had been so inspired by DuBoise's story, they arranged a Zoom call with him following his release in August. DuBoise eventually noticed another Bucs lineman who had been on that same call, left tackle Donovan Smith, who waved frantically to attract DuBoise's attention.

"He was right there," Smith said. "I don't even think he recognized me or even knew who I was at first until I yelled. I'm like, 'Yo, Robert, what's up?' And then you saw him smile."

Of all the people in that stadium that night, DuBoise might have been the only one who wasn't upset that the Bucs ultimately lost. His life had taught him far more about serious trauma: wrongfully convicted of murder as a teenager, caged with killers on death row for years, forced to watch decades pass by as so many people in power ignored his pleas for justice. Those Bucs players knew all this when they reached out to DuBoise. Like the three friends who attended that game with him -- as well as all the others who stuck with them through his journey -- they wanted to make sure his new lease on life started with as much support as possible.

So DuBoise was there because the Bucs wanted to make him feel good. What he couldn't grasp was how much of an impact he'd already made on them.

"The most shocking thing for me after talking to him was his appreciation," Marpet said. "I think it would be totally justified for him to be pissed off. And the most surprising thing for me is his gratitude for freedom."

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are enjoying their best season in nearly two decades, a campaign that has brought them their first Super Bowl berth since they won it all in 2002. But they've also been doing something more powerful off the field; they're finding ways to help DuBoise restart his life.

DuBoise could've died in jail without most people ever knowing the slightest detail about him. Today, he's the embodiment of what can happen if hope, faith and determination intersect at exactly the right time. This is a story with two elements: It's about an innocent man finally having his life returned to him and a pro football team helping him figure out what to do with it next.

The players would be the first to admit they're playing a small role in DuBoise's journey through his newfound freedom. DuBoise would be the first to say every bit of help he receives at this stage of his life means everything.

Even that Zoom call, which lasted about 30 minutes, warmed his heart.

"I tried to answer all their questions the best I could," DuBoise said. "I was just touched by their caring. I was touched by the fact that they cared enough to get involved just because they read the story."

The gestures the Bucs have made so far matter, because nearly everything DuBoise does these days involves either a sense of wonderment or intimidation. When he walked out of Hardee Correctional Institution in Bowling Green, Florida, on Aug. 27, his fellow inmates cheered his release. DuBoise then strolled into a nearby CVS later that night with his attorney, Susan Friedman, and found himself staring at the shelves, daunted by the task of selecting a toothbrush when so many choices were available. The same man who had never touched an iPhone spent his first evening of freedom gazing at the stars, largely because he was so accustomed to not sleeping through the nights while in jail.

DuBoise spends most of his days trying to find steady work. He uses the handyman skills he learned in prison whenever possible. A few weeks after his release, he drove over an hour from Tampa to Haines City to help a woman who'd been struggling with the hot water in her house. By the time he left, he'd fixed her water heater and washer, as well.

DuBoise probably wouldn't have been able to travel that far for work without the pickup truck he bought after his release. Between Marpet, Cappa, Smith and a team match, the Bucs gave him $25,000 to help restart his life. The money immediately helped DuBoise with his goal of finding odd jobs.

"Without it, I could do none of it," DuBoise said. "I couldn't go to work. I couldn't have the tools in it. I got all the tools I need in the truck, and I can go anywhere. And when I get to a house, I have everything I need already."

"There's not much you can tell a guy who's been done so wrong," Cappa said. "There's so little that we can do for him. So, it felt good to at least give him something to hopefully get him going a little bit."

DuBoise doesn't take any act of kindness for granted. Instead of being bitter about spending so much of his life in prison, he tries to do his own part to make the world a better place. He wakes up every morning around 4, sips on a cup of coffee while watching the local news and then prepares sack lunches for the homeless. He packs granola bars, bottled water and canned goods with pop-off lids so the recipients can access those meals whenever they please.

It's that level of sensitivity that makes DuBoise so special. Maxson Gallo, a former paralegal for the Innocence Project -- the organization that led the charge on DuBoise's exoneration -- was surprised by a box of candy he received on his birthday a few months ago. It was from DuBoise, who had remembered the special occasion. When Friedman would call to offer updates on his case, DuBoise would end up spending much of the time asking her how she was doing. She had to remind him that he was the one who needed extra attention.

"Robert is the same person he was when he was incarcerated," Friedman said. "He is good-hearted. He is mindful of others. He cares about others. Every time I talk to him and I ask him what he's done that day, he tells me that he was out at a neighbor's house, helping them fix something, or that there was a mother with two kids who needed her air conditioning fixed and he was working on that for her. He wants to help other people. That's the way he was when he was in prison."

There's something rare about a person who can walk into jail as a frightened, devastated teenager and emerge as a humble, selfless adult. DuBoise downplays that spirit he brings to every day of his life, but it's clear he's learned that true freedom isn't solely about being on the outside of a prison. It's about what you believe, how you endure, and the peace you find in your heart and mind. Not once did he let his cursed situation break him.

In fact, his story is so compelling that people from all over the world have sent letters of encouragement, and even tools, after hearing details of his journey.

"Right now, our country and the world is experiencing COVID, and everyone's dealing with their own hardships every day," Gallo said. "And they're looking for reasons to hold on and stories that inspire them to hold on. And Robert is that living example of someone who held on through what is arguably one of the most trying and painful things someone can experience -- wrongful conviction and incarceration. And he kept fighting for 40 years every day. People are inspired by that."

The players didn't know what to say. They fidgeted and stewed and sat anxiously in their seats as the seconds ticked by on that Nov. 18 Zoom call. They had come up with the idea after Marpet read about DuBoise's release in the Tampa Bay Times a few weeks earlier, but there was a different vibe now that it was actually happening. It was easy to want to connect with DuBoise. It was much harder to think about what you'd ask somebody who'd had his life ripped away from him.

When DuBoise's face popped onto the screen, that nervousness intensified.

"I thought we would have more to say, but we were all kind of speechless," Cappa said. "It was very inspiring for us to talk to him because he's such an upbeat guy and you wouldn't know that he's been done so wrong with how positive his outlook is."

DuBoise couldn't get into all the details of his story during that call. His journey involved too many twists and turns, tragic moments followed by the constant hope of ending a brutal nightmare.

It goes all the way back to the night of Aug. 18, 1983, when somebody beat, raped and murdered a 19-year-old woman named Barbara Grams after she left her restaurant job at a Tampa shopping mall. DuBoise, 18 at the time, became a suspect in the case initially because he routinely hung out at a grocery store located near the crime scene, although no witnesses ever placed him there on the night of Grams' death.

Police focused on a circular wound on Grams' left cheek. Detectives eventually got DuBoise and other local men to agree to have molds taken of their teeth. A forensic dentist concluded that it was DuBoise who left the bite mark on Grams' cheek.

There was nothing else to link him to the crime, except for testimony from a jailhouse informant who claimed DuBoise had made self-incriminating statements while he was incarcerated and awaiting trial (that informant later agreed to a plea deal that reduced his life sentence to five years). Police didn't find DuBoise's fingerprints at the scene, and none of his hair was on Grams' body. Those factors made DuBoise's lawyers feel confident his trial would end in an acquittal. Instead, a jury deliberated for two days before finding him guilty of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery.

That same jury recommended a life sentence, but the presiding judge, Harry Lee Coe III (he earned the moniker "Hangin' Harry" for his harsh sentencing), decided a death sentence was appropriate.

Robert DuBoise, as he appeared in a mug shot upon his arrival on Florida's death row in 1985. (Florida Department of Corrections)
Robert DuBoise, as he appeared in a mug shot upon his arrival on Florida's death row in 1985. (Florida Department of Corrections)

"I just couldn't believe it," DuBoise said. "I was just dumbfounded. I sat there and the attorneys kept telling me everything's fine, you've got nothing to worry about. And then I hear the guilty verdict and then the death sentence. And I'm like, I can't believe it. It was just like a nightmare."

DuBoise had that same sense of shock as he stepped onto a bus headed toward Florida State prison at 2:30 the following morning. He felt more devastated as he trudged up a long ramp into the correctional facility, stripped off the suit he'd worn to trial and donned the blue uniform provided to all inmates. The walk to his cell on death row was the most painful part. He peeked into each one of the six cells before he reached his own and noticed that every prisoner "seemed like they were just waiting to die because they were just completely glum."

It didn't take long for DuBoise to relate. The first and only time he cried in jail came a few days after his arrival.

"I was just sitting there day after day," he said. "I'd just sit there sometimes late at night. I'd think about my family and the people around me that were also facing death, and some of them, a lot of them got executed while I was there. I just thought, this is really hopeless."

The more DuBoise talked, the more the Bucs players couldn't believe what they were hearing. They knew he'd been incarcerated in cells next to notorious serial killers like Ted Bundy, and that DuBoise had written to various media outlets, including Dateline and 60 Minutes, to tell his story. They hadn't heard about other details, like how DuBoise learned electrical and plumbing skills so he could stay busy fixing things around the prison. Even that passion presented unexpected burdens for him.

"He got asked to do (electrical) work for the electric chair," Donovan Smith said. "I'm speechless, just even thinking about it again. You know -- the audacity to have someone ask you on death row to fix something that could potentially kill you one day. I don't even know how to even compartmentalize any of that."

DuBoise spent time in six correctional facilities. His sentence was reduced to life in prison in 1988. He kept his spirits up by reading the Bible relentlessly and attending routine meetings with a church group. And then he discovered The Innocence Project after reading a John Grisham novel entitled The Innocent Man, a book that referenced the organization's commitment to exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners and their success in overturning convictions.

DuBoise wrote a letter to The Innocence Project, outlining all the pain he'd endured and all the hopes he still harbored for being a free man. The letter reached Friedman in 2018, and she agreed to take the case.

"What stood out about Robert's case is that it was completely based on two of the contributing factors to wrongful convictions: faulty forensic evidence and a jailhouse informant," Friedman said. "The entire case against Robert was built around bite-mark evidence, which has now been completely discredited by and rejected by the scientific community."

Lawyer Susan Friedman accepted DuBoise's case after DuBoise wrote a letter to the Innocence Project. "She was very gung-ho about going forward and getting facts and truth and proving it," DuBoise said. (Casey Brooke Lawson/AP Images for The Innocence Project)
Lawyer Susan Friedman accepted DuBoise's case after DuBoise wrote a letter to the Innocence Project. "She was very gung-ho about going forward and getting facts and truth and proving it," DuBoise said. (Casey Brooke Lawson/AP Images for The Innocence Project)

"Once I met Susan Friedman, I knew right then that she was serious about it, and that she would stick with it, and I trusted her completely," DuBoise said. "And she did not let me down. She was very gung-ho about going forward and getting facts and truth and proving it."

Friedman spent the next two years tirelessly working on DuBoise's case. When the COVID-19 pandemic surged through Florida -- and made it harder for people to have access to inmates inside prison -- she diligently kept DuBoise abreast of the progress through regular phone calls. It didn't help that all the evidence that had been introduced at his trial was presumed destroyed, but Friedman kept pushing. Eventually, the case broke open.

"Robert was exonerated based on two facts that were discovered," Friedman said. "First, we had a forensic odontologist review the evidence in this case. And what we learned is that the alleged mark on the victim's face wasn't even a bite mark. So, what started this case back in 1983 was completely false. And then second, remarkably, despite Robert learning in 2008 that all of the evidence in his case had been destroyed, the medical examiner actually still had rape kit slides that were created during the victim's autopsy. So, we were able to test those slides."

Not too long after that, on a Monday morning in late August, DuBoise received a phone call. It was Friedman, along with a handful of her co-workers. She informed DuBoise that DNA testing had proved he was innocent. She then gave him the news he'd waited 37 years to hear: He was going to be released from prison that Thursday.

The information stunned Robert at first.

"It was kind of unbelievable but believable because I knew she was telling me the truth," he said.

The next few days were a whirlwind. He made his final preparations to leave and steadied himself for the press conference that would follow his release. When DuBoise walked out of prison, he left behind several inmates who were elated by his freedom. He'd never told them all the details of his situation, but they'd always believed his claims of innocence.

DuBoise entered prison wearing a gray three-piece suit and with long, flowing black hair. He exited in a black T-shirt, gray Adidas sweatpants and a hairline that had receded to the crown of his head.

"When I walked out that front door, I just looked for my mom, my sister and Susan," DuBoise said. "And they were right there in the parking lot. It was just a really good feeling."

Marpet's first impulse after reading about DuBoise's story was to take it to the Buccaneers' social justice player committee. That group included players like Marpet, Smith, cornerback Carlton Davis and punter Bradley Pinion. That committee evolved over the past few years as the NFL devoted more attention and resources to social justice initiatives. Though the board hadn't been doing anything related to exonerated prisoners, it was obvious that DuBoise's situation fit perfectly within the foundational values of the group.

"It was important to us because, with the social justice team that we have here, it just fell right in line with what we wanted to do," Smith said. "Police reform, helping out in the community, helping out people, and he's a Tampa native."

Before long, the players were discussing DuBoise's story with other teammates in the locker room. There was a sentiment that the team should do something, which led to players throwing in money to help him restart his life. They didn't know anything that was happening with DuBoise at that stage. They only knew they wanted to do something to help.

So, they started with a simple step: They contacted him.

"I don't know why they would want to reach out to me," DuBoise said, "but they did."

Said Marpet: "My first thought after reading the story was, I need to hear his opinion, hear his thoughts and his perspective. And I think that was what I was most excited to listen to. I'm grateful that we got that opportunity."

The Zoom call was the first meaningful moment in their interaction. When it ended, the players told Robert about the financial gift and the invitation to the game. As he watched the action on that Monday night from his south end zone seats, he found himself staring all around, as if he was a child experiencing his first amusement-park trip. When the fourth quarter began, some Bucs officials led him to the stadium's trademark pirate ship, where he watched the remainder of the contest.

It was a surreal night for DuBoise, who already had been experiencing so many thrilling moments. He voted for the first time in his life a couple weeks prior to attending the game. A few days after that contest, DuBoise spent Thanksgiving with his mother and his 92-year-old aunt. Predictably, he arrived early to help them set up the table and "make sure all the work wasn't on them."

Moments like that help DuBoise deal with some of the challenges that come with being an exoneree. He's been living at The Sunny Center, a local non-profit that provides housing for exonerated prisoners, largely because he doesn't have enough income for his own place. The process of finding legal identification was daunting at times, because somebody released from prison only leaves with a state ID issued by the facility, which isn't valid for opening a bank account or even purchasing a phone (DuBoise now has a driver's license).

The biggest challenge DuBoise faces today is one that sadly involves the legal system. Florida is one of 35 states that offers compensation to exonerated prisoners -- awards that can sometimes mean millions of dollars -- but the process is very restrictive. The state doesn't provide compensation to people who have a non-violent felony conviction. Since DuBoise was arrested and later placed on probation for stealing car parts when he was 17 years old, he doesn't qualify to receive any money for the time he wrongfully spent in prison.

Moments after being released from Hardee Correctional Institution last August, Duboise was greeted by his mother, Myra, and sister, Harriet. (Casey Brooke Lawson/AP Images for The Innocence Project)
Moments after being released from Hardee Correctional Institution last August, Duboise was greeted by his mother, Myra, and sister, Harriet. (Casey Brooke Lawson/AP Images for The Innocence Project)

"It's really hard to re-enter society (after) having spent decades in prison and with the added burden of being innocent," Friedman said. "So, while there is a lot of support that he can receive, there's a lot that he also can't do. Financial assistance provides security, a home. And it's really hard also for him to find employment. He has just spent decades with nothing to put on his resume. Having compensation could be incredibly useful to him in terms of helping him rebuild his life."

The one thing DuBoise has working in his favor these days is patience. Nearly four decades spent wrongfully incarcerated for a heinous crime taught him all about that. There were plenty of days during his incarceration that he followed a familiar routine: work a job somewhere in the facility, return to his cell, listen to music, paint, maybe write a letter or watch the local news and then read his Bible. The whole goal then, as DuBoise said, was "to stay away from the negativity. If there were negative people around, I just didn't feel good about it."

These days, DuBoise takes nothing for granted.

"I go down by Tampa Bay or Bayshore [Boulevard], or even the riverwalk ... and I just appreciate all of it. I can see the beauty in God's creation, everywhere, all the trees. I was at a place where, for like the first 16 or 17 years, I couldn't even touch a tree. There were no trees, no flowers and half the time there's not even grass. So, I appreciate all of it."

The Bucs players also want to continue to do their part.

"If Robert can live a life that feels fulfilling to him, I think that's the ultimate goal," Marpet said. "Hopefully, we can play a very small part in piecing that journey together for him."

"Obviously, we're going to stay in contact," Smith added. "We're definitely going to see what we can do (as far as) getting him some type of work (related to his) skillset. We're just going to stay on it and hopefully get him in touch with the right people so he can get his life started again."

Friedman knows how much it meant to DuBoise that the Bucs have forged a relationship. It's one more indication of how many people are out there rooting for him. She acknowledged DuBoise has been scarred by the injustices of the legal system to the extent that "he'll never be whole again," but Friedman is also excited to see people who want to help him try.

"It was really exciting for him to get to meet these talented players who also really obviously cared about what was going on in their community," Friedman said. "Robert was wronged by the system, and now to have so many people reach out and want to help him is incredibly meaningful and heartwarming."

DuBoise agreed.

"When I first went in (to prison), the despair made you feel like everything was hopeless," he said. "So there was a lot of depression at the beginning, and even in between, but at some point I just had to say, 'You know what, I got to keep my faith and I just got to focus and I know God's going to get me through this.' And He did."

Since 2008, when the law was passed to prohibit financial awards for wrongly imprisoned people with prior convictions, only five of 31 exonerees have been compensated. If you would like to help change Florida's compensation law so that Robert DuBoise and other exonerees in the state can receive compensation, you can sign your name to an Innocence Project petition.

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