TAMPA ó Almost 17 years ago, Dwight DuBose was condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison for a murder he says he didnít commit.
On Tuesday morning, he pleaded guilty to the crime in exchange for the promise that he would go free.
DuBose, 45, was expected to walk out of jail late Tuesday night, capping a yearslong fight to prove his innocence. Rather than face another jury, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder. His sentence went from life to time served.
"This allows him to go home immediately without the risk of getting convicted again," said Seth Miller, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.
A jury found DuBose guilty of the 2001 murder of Fred Mobley Jr. But DNA testing later cast doubt on his guilt and prompted a judge to order a new trial.
No physical evidence linked him to the crime. The stateís case hinged on the testimony of three witnesses, who claimed they saw him choke the victim.
Mobley, 47, was found after sunrise on Feb. 18, 2001, lying face down against a chain-link fence in a lot known for open-air drug sales at 34th Street and Lila Avenue. Police initially thought he might have been hit by a car. But an investigation revealed he was strangled.
There were no suspects until a few days later when a man named Marcus Seymore approached investigators. Seymore claimed people were spreading rumors that he had killed the victim. He explained that he had unsuccessfully tried to sell crack cocaine to Mobley, then watched him ride off on a bicycle. Moments later, he saw another man grab Mobley from behind and put him in a choke hold. He watched them struggle for a few minutes before leaving, he said.
Seymore later identified DuBose as the man who had attacked Mobley. Prosecutors assembled three other men who had also witnessed the attack. Two of them also identified DuBose as the attacker.
DuBose, known as "D.D.," had a criminal history that included convictions for aggravated battery and grand theft. He admitted he was in the area that early morning, but denied that he attacked Mobley.
At his trial, the defense tried to attack the credibility of the four witnesses, noting their own lengthy criminal histories. Still, DuBose was found guilty of first-degree murder. He received a mandatory life sentence.
In 2008, he wrote to the Innocence Project of Florida. They reviewed his case and then, in 2011, filed a request for DNA testing.
When he was killed, Mobley was wearing a glove on his right hand. In his struggle to live, attorneys argued, he likely scratched the killerís arms with his bare left fingers.
Results came in 2014: DNA found underneath Mobleyís fingernails did not match DuBose.
Two profiles were detected. One was from Mobley. The other belonged to a person whose identity was unknown.
Innocence Project attorneys took their case before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell. The state argued that the DNA testing did not discount the fact that witnesses identified him as the attacker.
A year ago, Campbell ruled that the new evidence created enough doubt about DuBoseís guilt to warrant a new trial.
With his conviction overturned, DuBose was set to be retried in May. But amid late negotiations, DuBose entered his new plea.
"When questions arise about the innocence of someone who was found guilty by a jury, itís our responsibility to fully re-examine the case before determining whether to disregard the verdict," Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said. "In this case, we were fully transparent with the defense that we were in the process of re-examining the case, and the defendant chose to plead to time served."
Miller said DuBose chose the plea offer, over the possibility that a jury might find him guilty and renew his life sentence. The "best interest" plea is not an admission of responsibility. DuBose still maintains he did not commit the murder.
"There is always a risk that evidence a court deems persuasive enough to overturn a conviction might not rule the day in a trial in front of a jury," Miller said. "Weíre happy that heís able to maintain his innocence."
The Innocence Project will help DuBose reintegrate into society, Miller said. It will start with basics like obtaining identification documents and health care, before assisting him in finding employment.
"Weíre going to do everything to make sure heís a productive, contributing member of society," Miller said.
DuBose plans to reside at his motherís home in Tampa.
The Innocence Project of Florida won another local manís freedom earlier this year.
In January, Dean McKee was released after more than 30 years in prison for a 1987 Tampa murder. DNA testing in his case also cast doubt on his guilt and led Judge Campbell to overturn his conviction. McKee remains free while the state appeals the judgeís ruling.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.