TAMPA — From his bench in a Hillsborough Circuit courtroom Friday, Judge Emmett Lamar Battles peered at a man waiting to learn his fate.
Donald Dankert, 27, had asked for mercy. But Battles had seen the autopsy photos of an infant with lacerated intestines and bruises all over his body, some in the shape of fingertips.
"Mr. Dankert," the judge said, "fathers are supposed to protect their children. You abused and killed your son, Dylan.
"Your crimes warrant nothing less than the maximum penalty allowed by law."
Twenty years in prison.
Dankert doubled over in his seat and shook with quiet sobs, his forehead resting on the defense table until a bailiff picked him up to take him away.
The road to justice stretched seven years in a case prolonged by an unusually high number of routine slowdowns, including lawyer changes, a sick witness, one who moved out of town and new charges.
It all began on Dec. 19, 2003, when Dankert rushed into a hospital clutching an infant with no pulse. On that day, Dankert told the same story he told a jury this September:
He said he dropped Dylan when a dog startled him, then instinctively jerked up his knee. The baby cried, but was comforted. Dankert left him in his crib but returned to find the infant's eyes looking strange.
A medical examiner ruled out the story saying the boy endured more than one fatal blow to the abdomen.
The jury was torn. Some jurors doubted Dankert's tearful testimony and some doubted the state's case for first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. After hours of cacophonous debate, they decided Dankert was guilty, but of lesser charges.
The maximum penalty for third-degree murder is 15 years. For child abuse, five.
At his sentencing Friday, Dankert and his lawyers asked for probation or house arrest. They wanted the judge to consider Dankert's emotional history. He was 5 when his parents divorced, his public defender, Theda James, said. He was traumatized by a tumultuous home life and became suicidal, acting out by slitting his wrists and overdosing on pills.
James asked the judge to consider the child abuse an isolated incident.
But prosecutor Jalal Harb said Dylan's injuries indicated multiple episodes of abuse. He also discussed a pending Pinellas case in which Dankert is accused of aggravated child abuse on another child, who survived.
Dankert was out on bail in 2008 when he moved in with a Clearwater mother of three. He was alone with her 2-year-old daughter when she developed injuries doctors found consistent with strangulation.
Dankert was supposed to stand trial in October, but the girl's mother, the prosecution's star witness, didn't show up to court. Selena Vesey has told the Times she believes Dankert is innocent.
Prosecutors have issued a "pick up order" for Vesey in which she will be brought to court to tell a judge why she violated an order to testify. The trial was postponed to March 2011.
Also awaiting judgment is Tanya Gruce, the mother of baby Dylan. She is accused of aggravated manslaughter for failing to seek medical attention for her son.
Gruce, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, could not attend the sentencing, but in a letter, she asked a judge to consider her words.
"Dec. 19, 2003, was a nightmare that I would not wish on anyone," she wrote. "I never suspected when I awoke to go to work in the morning, that later that evening, I would be holding my four-month-old baby as he took his last breath. Many people wonder why I stayed with Donald Dankert after this horrific incident. I believed him."
She no longer does, she said. She has custody of their second son, who is 4, and asked the judge to consider the boy's safety.
Before he was sentenced, Dankert stood to speak in his defense. He held his notes with an unsteady, cuffed hand.
"Your honor," he said, "I only ask for your mercy. I am not a hardened criminal and I am deeply sorry for the pain I've caused and want to make amends. I feel like a prison term or a long prison term could do more harm than good."
He said he didn't want to be a burden on his family or the system, and would get a job and prove to everyone he could be better.
He said he was sorry.
Once he was done, Battles told him to sit down.
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.