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State Attorney: Man accused in Seminole Heights killings could face death

Howell Emanuel Donaldson III appears for his first court appearance in front of Judge Margaret Taylor where he is charged four counts of first degree in the Seminole Heights killings at the Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, November 30, 2017. [Octavio Jones | Times]
Published Nov. 30, 2017

TAMPA — Howell Donaldson stepped beside his lawyer looking haggard, his wrists clasped in chains, his body wrapped in a green anti-suicide smock. He said nothing as a judge explained via a closed-circuit TV that he faces four counts of first-degree murder.

Miles away in a packed Tampa courtroom, State Attorney Andrew Warren was among those who watched the brief first appearance for the man accused in four shootings that terrorized Tampa's Southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood for 51 days.

Many wanted to know: Would Warren seek the death penalty?

At a news conference that followed the hearing, Warren said he might.

"The death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst offenders in our society," he said, "and, generally speaking, a serial killer would qualify."

Donaldson, 24, was arrested early Wednesday, hours after he gave a bag that held a gun to a fellow employee of an Ybor City McDonald's. The employee summoned police, who detained Donaldson as they examined the weapon. They later said the gun was the same one used in the string of killings, which began Oct. 9.

The victims were Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20; and Ronald Felton, 60.

On Thursday morning, eight of Hoffa's family members packed a second-row bench behind a throng of reporters in Taylor's courtroom.

Her father, Kenny Hoffa, said later that he trusted Warren's office to make the right decisions in the case.

He also expressed empathy for Donaldson's relatives.

"I'm praying for his family," he said. "I know they're experiencing everything we're experiencing. … Unfortunately, they're going to suffer the loss of a son, like we lost a daughter. It's a tragedy all the way around."

Warren said he would seek capital punishment if the case meets all legal requirements and is consistent with what the victims' families want. Since he was elected as the county's top prosecutor last year, Warren has withdrawn from the death penalty in seven of the 24 capital cases he inherited. But on Thursday, he emphasized his office has sought new death sentences in three.

Whether Donaldson will make four is a decision that will be determined after a thorough review of the case's aggravating factors, Warren said. He also said they will consider any potential mitigating issues, like the defendant's age and mental health.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was unequivocal in his declaration Wednesday that he thinks Donaldson should be executed if found guilty.

The State Attorney's Office still needs to bring formal charges before a grand jury to indict Donaldson on capital charges.

RELATED: What comes next for the man accused in four Seminole Heights murders?

It was unclear why Donaldson was wearing the green smock Thursday. Hillsborough sheriff's officials declined to say, citing medical privacy laws.

Jail personnel decide how to dress inmates based on their charges and a psychological screening during the booking process to determine whether they pose a risk to themselves or other inmates, sheriff's officials said. The garment is designed to resist tearing, preventing its use as a noose.

Since his arrest, Donaldson has been held in administrative confinement, which means he sits in a single-man cell with few of the privileges other inmates enjoy.

County Judge Margaret Taylor appointed the office of Public Defender Julianne Holt to represent Donaldson. The judge also ordered that Donaldson be held without bail until a second hearing scheduled for Tuesday, when she will determine if he should stay in jail until trial.

"This is just the beginning. We know that," said Hoffa's cousin, Yury Gutierrez. "We will be here, every step of the way."

MORE ON SEMINOLE HEIGHTS

RELATED: Four shootings. One gun. Police wanted to find it. Turns out, the gun found them.

TIMELINE: Key events leading to the arrest in the Seminole Heights slayings

RELATED: Arrest report details evidence that led police to suspect in Seminole Heights slayings

RELATED: Arrest report details evidence that led police to suspect in Seminole Heights slayings

RELATED: Friends stunned by arrest of suspected serial killer in Seminole Heights

RELATED: College basketball teammates say Seminole Heights slaying suspect Trai Donaldson was cocky, not violent

RELATED: Seminole Heights killings: Seven things you need to know about Howell Emanuel Donaldson III

RELATED: Childhood friend of Seminole Heights killings suspect saw a change in attitude

RELATED: Coworkers teased suspected serial killer about looking like a serial killer

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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