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Behind 'The Marked Man' and his 37 years of wrongful imprisonment

Two men stand in front of a lake.
Mark Schreiner
Reporters at the Tampa Bay Times, including Dan Sullivan, left, spent over a year reporting on the story of Robert DuBoise, right. The Times conducted 25 hours worth of interviews with DuBoise.

Robert DuBoise was 18 when he was arrested and charged with the 1983 rape and slaying of Barbara Grams. Almost 40 years later, DNA tests revealed the real killers, who were part of a spree of murders.

“Time only goes slow when you're waiting for something.”

Those are the words of Robert DuBoise, a 59-year-old Tampa man who served 37 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.

He was released in 2020 after DNA evidence determined he was not the killer.

The Tampa Bay Times spent over a year reporting on DuBoise’s story in a series called "The Marked Man." It details his arrest, time in prison and fight for justice.

WUSF’s Aileyahu Shanes sat down with DuBoise and Times reporter Dan Sullivan to discuss more about the story.

Sullivan started by describing his reporting process.

Dan Sullivan: The earliest that I really started working on this was back in 2020, when Robert was exonerated. I covered the news just as a regular news story, and it was a really big deal. There was a lot of interest in Robert's story, both in the community and at the Times. When the former (Hillsborough County) state attorney, Andrew Warren, announced that he had charged the alleged real killers, that made it all the more interesting. So that was kind of how it started.

Robert DuBoise, what was your response and willingness to be part of this reporting? Did you hold yourself back at times?

DuBoise: No, not really. I was honest because I know the story has to get out, and I know people need to be enlightened on this justice system. So I don't mind.

Three men sit around a desk with microphones and computers.
Mark Schreiner
Robert DuBoise, right, speaks more on his story. Dan Sullivan, center, talks about his reporting process and takeaways of the story.

You were released in 2020, during a pandemic. What was that like? Did that have any effect on doing the things you wanted to do after your release?

DuBoise: I don't think the pandemic hindered me at all. I pretty much got everything done I needed to do right away: birth certificate, driver's license, voter ID, passport. I guess the most challenging thing was getting out (and) learning the cellphone and self-checkout or even being in a store, because I even got lost in a Target because it's so huge. It's just like a cultural shock. In 1983, I went into a world I didn't understand, and in 2020, I came back to another world I didn't understand. I had to relearn it all.

What would you say was the biggest shock when you entered this “new world” in 2020?

Robert DuBoise: The biggest shock was cellphones, the internet. I had to learn all of it. I knew nothing. I haven't ever used a (cell) phone. When I left, it was dial-up. I was just kind of stuck for a while. I stayed up all night for four nights straight, practicing with the phone. Then, my attorney had me start texting her, so I would get familiar with text, which I didn't know anything about — and later, I found out that's very useful. Then, I just started picking it up, adjusting as I worked.

How would you say your proficiency with these things is now?

DuBoise: Pretty good. I help other people now.

What was that feeling like for your firsts — the first time sleeping in your own bed, your first meal out of prison?

DuBoise: I don't know if you could describe it. I really didn't dwell on the bed or the eating. I think the most important thing to me was I walked out of my door at 2 in the morning and was able to go stand under the stars and see the moon. I just appreciated it, that freedom.

Dan, through this reporting, how has your perception of the criminal justice system changed and how will that change how you report on similar topics in the future?

Sullivan: I think one of the lessons about Robert's case is to be very skeptical of when somebody is arrested or when somebody is accused of a crime. You want to treat it with skepticism and make sure that it's based on facts and solid evidence. I think that's really one of the big lessons of this story. I think whenever I cover a criminal case, I try to treat things with skepticism and I try to ask myself, ‘Is there another explanation for what's being said here?’ I think it's an important thing to keep in mind.

What is the most important thing that you hope readers take away from your reporting?

Sullivan: Just the notion that there are people like Robert in the system, and we need to do what we can as a society to try to figure out who those people are and where they are and to correct these injustices when they happen. And you got to wonder if there are other people out there who might be in a similar situation as Robert was who, if they had access to a conviction review unit, that might give them the key to a new life and renewed freedom.

A man stands in front of a lake.
Mark Schreiner
Robert DuBoise was awarded $14 million from the Tampa City Council for the wrongful conviction that sent him to prison for 37 years.

Corrected: June 5, 2024 at 3:06 PM EDT
Robert DuBoise was released in 2020 after DNA evidence determined he was not the killer.⁠ A previous version of this story said otherwise.
Aileyahu Shanes is a WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2024.