Florida man says a fabricated bitemark sent him to prison for 37 years. Now he’s suing.

·4 min read

Robert DuBoise, who lost 37 years of his life for a crime he did not commit, is suing the former Tampa police officials and the forensic dentist who helped send him to prison.

A lawsuit filed this week in federal court accuses three former detectives, a former police sergeant and a forensic dentist of fabricating bitemark evidence that falsely implicated DuBoise in the 1983 murder of Barbara Grams.

DuBoise spent three years on death row in the 1980s before his sentence was reduced to life in prison. In 2020, newly tested DNA evidence proved he did not commit the crime.

Now 56, DuBoise was freed from prison in August 2020.

His lawsuit names as defendants retired Tampa police Detectives Phillip Saladino and K.E. Burke, former Sgt. R.H. Price, and the estate of the late Detective John Counsman, along with the city itself, and Dr. Richard Souviron, a forensic dentist who testified in DuBoise’ 1985 trial.

Grams was 19 when she was attacked while walking home from a restaurant job at a Tampa shopping mall. A gardener found her body the morning of Aug. 19, 1983, in the yard outside a dental office at 3911 N Boulevard. She had been raped and beaten.

The investigators fixated on a circular wound they identified on her cheek, which they believed was a bite mark. They took teeth molds of several people they considered suspects, including DuBoise, whose teeth they later claimed matched the mark.

In 2020, the Hillsborough State Attorney’s conviction review unit located untested DNA samples from a rape kit in the case. When tested, the DNA did not match DuBoise.

It did match someone else, who officials have said is now a person of interest in the murder. That person has not been publicly identified.

A different dentist reexamined the bitemark evidence and concluded the wound on Grams’ cheek was not from a bite after all. Bite mark evidence in recent years has come to be regarded an unreliable.

A model depicting the teeth of Robert DuBoise, created during the 1983 murder investigation.
A model depicting the teeth of Robert DuBoise, created during the 1983 murder investigation.

The 34-page complaint details an alleged conspiracy to fabricate bitemark evidence. It alleges that the detectives were followers of Souviron, who at the time was a foremost expert in forensic odontology. He famously testified in the murder trial of Ted Bundy, identifying the serial killer’s teeth as a match to a bite mark on one of Bundy’s victims.

The complaint states that Souviron spoke at a conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police some time before DuBoise’ murder trial. It includes several quotes attributed to him, including: “If you tell me that is the guy that did it, I will go into court and say that is the guy that did it.”

Burke and Saladino reached out to Souviron in September 1983 for help in the Grams murder case, according to the complaint. Souviron later reviewed the supposed bitemark evidence and told them they were looking for a person with a missing front tooth or a gap between the upper front teeth. DuBoise’ teeth did not have such a gap, the complaint states.

Police would later use beeswax to make a mold of DuBoise’ teeth, a method that even in 1983 was not considered a proper way to create a tooth mold for a bitemark comparison, according to the complaint.

Souviron concluded that the supposed bitemark was a match to DuBoise.

The complaint also alleges that the detectives conspired with Claude Butler, who was in jail at the same time as DuBoise. Butler would later testify as a jailhouse informant, claiming that DuBoise confessed to him. They met with Butler several times, fabricating a story of a supposed confession, according to the complaint. Butler’s account of the confession was inconsistent, the complaint states.

Jailhouse informant testimony has also been deemed problematic in recent years, having been cited as a frequent factor in wrongful convictions, though prosecutors still sometimes rely on jailhouse informants to obtain convictions.

A spokesman for the City of Tampa declined to comment on the lawsuit. Efforts to reach the surviving retired officers by phone were not successful. Souviron did not return a message left for comment at his Coral Gables dental office.

When news of DuBoise’ exoneration came last year, Souviron told the Tampa Bay Times he would not testify with the same certainty now as he did in 1985.

“From a human point of view, of course, I feel terrible,” Souviron told the Times in 2020. “I played a part in his conviction. There’s no question I feel terrible.”

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys with the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of incarcerated people. It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

It comes as a pair of bills that aim to compensate DuBoise remain pending in the Florida legislature ahead of the 2022 lawmaking session. If passed, the bills would give DuBoise $1.85 million for the years he spent wrongfully incarcerated. A similar bill was filed earlier this year, but died before a vote could occur.

“Unfortunately, that claims bill does not appear to be moving at all,” said Daniel Marshall, one of the attorneys representing DuBoise. “Given the lack of movement on the claims bill, we’re pursuing alternate avenues.”