TAMPA — Donald Dankert entered the courtroom with a red face and a crumbled tissue. The jury had spent five hours deliberating whether he killed his infant son. The time had come Friday to hear the verdict.
Guilty of third-degree murder.
Guilty of child abuse.
He erupted into quiet sobs.
Instead of facing life in prison, Dankert now faces a maximum of 30 years for the murder charge and five for the abuse. He will be sentenced in October. Also that month, he is scheduled to stand trial in Pinellas County in another child abuse case.
The Hillsborough County jurors had entered deliberations with a spectrum of views: Dankert's tearful testimony, prosecutors' charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.
In the end, after some doubted Dankert's testimony and some doubted the state's case, after they combed through legal instructions and engaged in cacophonous discussion, they decided Dankert was guilty, indeed, but of lesser charges.
"It was very arduous," said juror Sandra Palumbo. "It was emotional."
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For four days, jurors heard evidence that Dankert rushed into an emergency room on Dec. 19, 2003, clutching an infant with no pulse.
They heard about the list of injuries to 4-month-old Dylan: bruises, bleeding, lacerated intestines. They heard Dankert, 27, say he dropped the baby. And they heard a medical examiner say that didn't add up.
On Friday, assistant public defender Theda James directed some blame at University Community Hospital, which decided to airlift Dylan to Tampa General Hospital for surgery. The baby had to wait for a helicopter, and because a surgeon wasn't available at TGH, then had to be taken to St. Joseph's Hospital. She said an ambulance could've transferred the baby in nine minutes. Instead, as his intestines leaked poison into his body, Dylan got to another hospital an hour after a doctor made the decision.
James acknowledged that Dankert injured the baby, but called it an accident.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Jalal Harb said there was no evidence to suggest bad judgment on the part of the hospital. He focused on Dylan's injuries.
"You've seen the photos," he said. He called juror attention to a rug with blood on it. "It's very possible this kid was being stomped on that area rug."
Dankert told jurors Thursday that he dropped Dylan when a dog startled him, then instinctively jerked up his knee. The baby cried, but was comforted. Dankert left the baby in his crib but returned to find the infant's eyes looking strange and his diaper full of blood.
A medical examiner ruled out the story. The boy endured more than one fatal blow to the abdomen, he said. They would have happened prior to what Dankert described.
The baby's mother, Tanya Gruce, is charged with aggravated manslaughter and will be tried separately. Both she and Dankert said they noticed the baby had a fever late that morning, but saw no bruises.
Dankert wouldn't take Dylan to the pediatrician, Harb suggested, because he didn't want the doctor to see the injuries.
"By then," Harb said, "that child was on the course of no return. … The child was bleeding. … The child had contusions to his abdomen.
"And the defendant was hoping, no question, that that would go away. He realized that that wasn't going away. … He had no choice but to go to the emergency room."
Harb raised his voice and looked at the defense table.
"Mr. Dankert," he said, "that was way too late."
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Sharon Seavey sat in the jury box all week. Thursday night, she attempted a reenactment. She held a stuffed bear and dropped it to her knee.
She couldn't envision that causing the kinds of injuries she saw in the photos. On Friday, she learned she was an alternate and was not part of deliberations.
But Palumbo was. She said jurors also couldn't reconcile the injuries with Dankert's version.
"It just didn't make sense."