Parents’ dilemma: Refuse questions in Seminole Heights murder case or risk harming son’s defense

Published December 7 2017
Updated December 7 2017


Here’s the dilemma for the parents of Howell Emanuel Donaldson III:

Hillsborough County’s top prosecutors want to question them to learn what they may know of their son’s potential involvement in four Seminole Heights murders. But if Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson answer those questions, their statements could be used to help push their son toward death row.

"It’s testimony that’s being elicited to make a decision about the life or death of their son," their attorney said Thursday morning in a hearing before County Judge Margaret Taylor.

The judge ordered the Donaldsons to appear before her next month and explain why she shouldn’t hold them in civil contempt of court. If they continue to avoid the state’s questions, they could face sanctions, including fines or possible jail time.

The Donaldsons sat quietly in the second row of a cramped courtroom behind a throng of reporters during the half-hour hearing. Hours later, a Hillsborough County grand jury would return an indictment, formally charging the son with four counts of premeditated murder with a firearm.

Outside the courtroom, they whispered to their attorneys. Rosita Donaldson wiped away tears.

Their attorney, Ralph Fernandez, said afterward that he hoped something could be worked out before the Jan. 5 hearing.

"It is a carrot being held out to see if we can reach some kind of agreement and resolve the overall issue," he said of the judge’s decision. He said he was pleased that Taylor chose keep the proceedings in the civil realm.

A finding of civil contempt is designed to make a person comply with court orders, the judge explained in her order. It is distinct from criminal contempt, which is designed to punish the offending party, who is treated as a criminal defendant.

The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office issued investigative subpoenas to the Donaldsons after their son’s arrest. Both appeared at the office Tuesday and met with assistant state attorneys.

Both provided birth dates, names and addresses of family members, and brief biographical information, but did not answer further questions.

A pair of transcripts, which documented their separate meetings, detailed their conversations.

Among the questions Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner asked the father: Do you know where your son was when the homicides happened? Do you know if your son has any friends or associates in southeast Seminole Heights? Do you know if your son has any history of mental illness?

To each question, Howell Donaldson Jr., gave the same reply.

"With all due respect, sir, I refuse to answer that question."

Rosita Donaldson answered a few questions about her family for Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon, before also refusing further inquiries.

In court, Pruner told Judge Taylor that the state’s goal was simply to learn as much as possible about the crimes and to make the parents comply.

"We are seeking to conduct a thorough investigation of the matters involving the loss of four lives," he said.

The idea of testifying against their son was not something they were in a position to consider, Fernandez said, especially with the possibility that he could face the death penalty.

"They knew when they went in that they were not going to answer questions that would lead to the execution of their son," the attorney said.

State Attorney Andrew Warren has yet to decide if his office will seek death. He has said previously that he will pursue capital punishment if a case meets the legal requirements and if that is consistent with the wishes of the victims’ families.

Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24, was arrested Nov. 28 in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton. The four were shot in October and November in southeast Seminole Heights, a violent spree that terrorized the neighborhood and attracted national attention.

Fernandez said the Donaldsons have been devastated since their son’s arrest.

"All of a sudden, their world changed dramatically," he said. "Life ended as they knew it forever."

They have had trouble sleeping, have thought about leaving town and received at least one death threat, he said. Given their emotional state, Fernandez said he didn’t think it was appropriate for them to give a statement.

The lawyer said he did not yet know whether the Donaldsons would eventually answer the prosecution’s questions.

"This is not a question of interfering with an investigation or a question of avoidance. .?.?. It’s a question of concern for their son," he said, addressing a crowd of reporters.

"I want each of you who have children to tell me — what would you do if police came to tell you you had to testify against your child? So far I haven’t found anybody that has taken the personal angle and said, ‘I would tell them everything to make sure my son was put to death.’?"

Within the Seminole Heights neighborhood, residents have mulled how to view the parents.

In online forums and on social media, the very same places where the community vented their angst and anxiety over the killings weeks ago, some have treated them with empathy.

They’ve perceived the couple as good parents in shock, enduring pain not unlike that of the families whose loved ones were killed. Others doubted their expressions of sorrow and wondered how the couple could not have known what their son was doing.

Brenda Samuel, the mother of Benjamin Mitchell, who was shot to death Oct. 9, said she believes if the parents know anything, they should tell the authorities.

"I don’t know anything about the Donaldson family," Samuel said. "They say they’re well-respected in the community, but if it was my son who was out doing wrong, I would report it no matter what."

Times staff writers Anastasia Dawson and Jonathan Capriel contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.