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Dontrell Baker

Other Florida DNA Exonerations
Shortly after 5 p.m. on July 26, 1996, two men wearing ski masks and brandishing handguns robbed a couple in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg, Florida. The robbers also took the cash drawer from the hotel’s front desk.

Police later found two ski masks in a garbage can nearby and also recovered the empty cash drawer and a $100 bill on the street. Videotape from a motel security camera recorded a green Isuzu Rodeo driving through the motel parking lot just a few minutes prior to the robbery.

A woman who lived near the motel told police that she saw two youths wearing ski masks run down the alley and discard the masks in her garbage can.

Several young men in the neighborhood told police that they also saw two youths dispose of something in the woman’s trash can and place other items in a nearby dumpster. The young men found the two masks in the woman’s garbage can and also found two guns and a T-shirt in the dumpster.

The young men later told police that while they were getting the masks, guns and T-shirt out of the garbage cans and dumpster, a man drove up in a green Isuzu Rodeo with vanity license plates that read “Milk Man,” got out, carrying what appeared to be a citizens band radio, and told the young men about the motel robbery. He said he was a detective, and he asked if they had seen anything suspicious. When they told the man about the boys who had disposed of the masks, guns, and T-shirt, he took the guns and drove away.

Police eventually went to the neighborhood around the motel and interviewed the neighbor woman and the young men. They also recovered the masks and the T-shirt, and heard the story about the man in the Isuzu who had driven off with the guns.

Police identified a fingerprint from the counter of the motel as belonging to 30-year-old Milton Gale. Police showed a photographic lineup that included Gale’s photograph to the neighborhood youths who picked Gale as the man in the Isuzu who took the guns.

The woman who lived near the Holiday Inn later viewed photographic lineups and identified the youths who discarded the ski masks as 18-year-old Dontrell Baker and 16-year-old David Shavers.

Baker, Gale and Shavers were each charged with three counts of armed robbery. Police said they believed that Gale was the mastermind of the heist.

In June 1997, Gale, Baker and Shavers (who was charged as an adult) went to trial in Pinellas County Circuit Court. The woman and the youths from the neighborhood identified Shavers and Baker as the young men who discarded the ski masks, and identified Gale as the man in the Isuzu who took the guns.

A crime lab analyst from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement testified that a hair recovered from one of the ski masks was similar to Baker’s hair.

Gale testified that he had gone to the motel earlier that to ask about the availability of a room. He told the jury he was driving away from the motel shortly after 5 p.m. when he heard about the robbery on his police scanner. He said he went to an ex-girlfriend’s apartment that happened to overlook the area where the two gunmen fled.

Gale said he walked over to the area, talked to some boys who said they saw two youths run through the area. He said he went back and got into his green Isuzu Rodeo and drove in the direction the youths fled. He said he saw boys looking in a dumpster and stopped, saw the guns and took them away so the boys wouldn’t shoot themselves.

Gale testified that he then drove around looking for the robbers, but when he heard on his scanner that police were looking for a green Isuzu Rodeo, he got scared and went to the motel where he was living and told a friend what was going on. Gale said his friend took the guns and offered to get rid of them; they were never recovered.

On June 13, 1997, a six-member jury convicted Baker and Gale of three counts of armed robbery each and acquitted Shavers of all counts.

Prior to sentencing, Gale disclosed that during the trial, a female jurors had telephoned him one evening. During their conversation, she said that she was pursuing a modeling career and that she had been in a talent show at a local tavern that Gale had videotaped. The woman also disclosed that she had been a victim of a crime—a fact she had not revealed during jury selection.

Gale’s lawyers filed a motion for a new trial claiming that the juror had engaged in misconduct and deception during jury selection. The video of the juror in the talent show was shown. The judge denied Gale’s motion, ruling that Gale should have reported the juror’s contact when it happened, not after he was convicted. Gale was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The judge found the juror guilty of contempt of court and sentenced her to six months of probation and fined her $1,100.

The judge then vacated Baker’s convictions and ordered a new trial.

Prior to Baker’s retrial, the prosecution requested that DNA tests be conducted on the hair from the ski mask. In August 1997, after the tests excluded Baker as the source of the hair, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In January 1999, the Florida Court of Appeals reversed Gale’s conviction and ordered the case dismissed for insufficient evidence. The appeals court said that the prosecution presented no evidence linking Gale to Shavers and Baker and that Gale “presented a reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/14/2015
State:Florida
County:Pinellas
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:1997
Sentence:Not sentenced
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*