CORAL GABLES, Fla. – After spending eight years in prison for a crime he never commit, Dustin Duty is now a free man.
“I’m just overwhelmed with joy,” Duty said on Wednesday. “I’d like to thank my legal team, without them I couldn’t have done it. I’m just ready to get on with my life, that’s all.”
Duty’s story starts back in 2013, when he moved to Jacksonville and began working as a painting contractor.
After his second day on the job, Duty was dropped off downtown by his boss, and then walked to a nearby store to buy a beer and a pack of cigarettes.
About an hour earlier though, in that same area, a woman was robbed at knifepoint by a man she described as being white, and wearing a green hoodie with a red Budweiser baseball cap.
Duty, who was shirtless, and wearing a backpack and a tool belt, paid for his beer and started walking to a friend’s house, but he was stopped by police who were looking for the robbery suspect.
“They determine that guy, shirtless no hat no hoodie, [wearing a] backpack and tool belt, matches the description of a guy wearing a red Budweiser cap, and a green hoodie,” said Craig Trocino, one of Duty’s attorneys.
Once in custody, officers called the victim and asked her to come look at Duty, telling her they had found a man matching her description of the attacker.
The woman told police she thought Duty looked like the right person, but Trocino told Local 10 the identification, and the process by which it was made, was entirely flawed.
Video inside of an interrogation room shortly after the identification shows Duty insisted he was innocent, begging a police detective to call his boss so he could prove he wasn’t even in the area at the time of the robbery, but the officer never did.
Duty was eventually tried for armed robbery, and after what Trocino called a “comedy of errors,” he was convicted.
Once in prison, Duty began reaching out to several organizations for help, and sent a letter to the Miami Law Innocence Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law. The clinic, which is the only innocence clinic at a law school in Florida, is run by Trocino and the law students he oversees.
“In 2016, my one student in charge at the time came in holding the letter in her hand and said ‘we gotta represent this guy!’,” Trocino said.
Trocino also learned the Innocence Project of Florida was looking into Duty’s case, and so both groups teamed up, led by Trocino and Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.
They spent the next five years challenging Duty’s case, arguing he had received ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial. In fact, they say the defense attorney who was meant to help Duty never once challenged the identification, and never even called Duty’s boss to see if he had an alibi that could help.
“Had the trial lawyer challenged the identification, it would have fallen apart,” said Trocino. “Had the trial lawyer called his boss, it would have fallen apart.”
Initially, a judge in Jacksonville upheld the conviction. Undeterred, the group brought the case to the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, and in July of this year, the court ruled in Duty’s favor, saying he deserved a new trial.
The victory was just the start of the good news for Duty. The team, led by Trocino and Miller, pushed the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville to drop the case entirely, pointing out the massive holes in the evidence.
Then, finally, they received word that the State would not be bringing charges again; meaning Duty would officially be exonerated.
“I was just overwhelmed with joy,” said Duty when he was released on Wednesday. “I just knew if I kept doing what I had to do, putting my best foot forward, that justice would prevail… For someone still fighting on the inside, just stay strong, persevere and keep trying to do the right thing and don’t give up hope. There are people out here that do care and they’re fighting.”
After his release, Duty and his team of lawyers and supporters went for dinner at a Morton’s Steakhouse where he got the one meal he had been craving: a bacon cheeseburger. He was also able to call is mother in Ohio, who he plans to go visit as soon as he’s able to.
“I can’t be any happier for him,” Trocino said while fighting back tears. “The look on his face when he walked out of prison and I gave him a hug, it makes it all worth it.”
Duty will turn 37-years-old next week, and will get to celebrate his birthday as a free man.