Will jurors in Seminole Heights trials learn of the other murders?
TAMPA – Prosecutors trying the case of accused Seminole Heights killer Howell Donaldson III received a blow last fall when they lost their offer to try him for all four murders at once.
But on Friday, they made another attempt to ensure the jury found out about the other three deaths in each murder trial.
Using a maneuver known in Florida as the Williams Rule, Hillsborough prosecutors argued that the facts of the infamous 2017 murders were similar enough to show that Donaldson had a pattern of behavior – and that each murder is relevant to the others.
“There were obvious and startling similarities,” said Assistant Attorney Scott Harmon.
The argument was the latest move by the state to tie the cases together, which might find a more persuasive way to convince. So far it has not been successful. In October, Hillsborough Circuit judge Samantha Ward joined the defense and decided to hold four separate trials for each murder, rather than grouping them together into one trial.
Connected: Tampa’s killings in Seminole Heights are reported to be the subject of four legal proceedings
“The fact that the state (and even the media and / or the public) defined the case and the accused as a ‘serial’ case / murderer ‘does not in and of itself make the crimes committed similar in this regard,” wrote Ward in their judgment.
Defense attorneys referred to this document in their arguments against the state’s request for the Williams Rule, saying the judge had already highlighted the many differences in the cases.
“We believe the court should find that there is no meaningful link between these murders,” said associate defense attorney Dana Herce-Fulgueira.
Ward said she would likely make a decision next week.
Donaldson, 28, is accused of fatally shooting Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton in October and November 2017. The shootings all took place less than a mile apart in southeast Seminole Heights. Residents were living in terror when Tampa police carried out a massive manhunt for the killer.
Officers arrested Donaldson after a manager at Ybor City McDonald’s, where the defendant worked, told police that he had given her a 40 caliber Glock pistol to hold on to while he was doing an assignment. A firearms expert said the cartridge cases found at the scene of all four murders were from this Glock, according to court records. Donaldson told police the gun was his but denied any role in the killings.
If convicted, the state said it intends to apply for the death penalty.
Connected: Police released a dramatic interview with Seminole Heights in which suspects were killed
Among the case similarities, the state argued at the hearing on Friday:
They occurred in the dark and affected pedestrians who were unarmed and alone in the same neighborhood within a few weeks. The victims were all shot in close proximity and still had their belongings with them, indicating that theft was not a motive. The victims were Donaldson and strangers to each other.
“It is this unusual pattern or way of working that indicates the identity of the defendant,” Harmon said.
At one point, Judge Harmon asked if the jury should learn details of all four murders at each trial, or if he was trying to link one or two specific cases together. The prosecutor said he would leave it to Ward. She told him it was “a mistake on your part, quite frankly.”
Donaldson was present in court, wearing red overalls and a blue surgical mask. Likewise, three family members of the victims who followed the proceedings via the zoom video.
Connected: The interviews describe the murder suspect’s downward spiral in Seminole Heights
At the end of the hearing, Ward asked the state and defense attorneys if they were willing to set a date for the trial. The state said yes, but Holt said no.
Kenny Hoffa, whose daughter Monica was the second victim killed, asked the judge via video whether it was normal for a case to take so long to be brought to justice. Ward stated that the death penalties are lengthy affairs and the pandemic is likely to be slowing things down too. Hoffa said it seemed like the defense was dragging their feet.
“We’re just waiting for justice and it’s really hard,” said Hoffa. “We experience everything anew every anniversary.
“We’re just ready to move on.”