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

Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24, wearing a white jumpsuit, is led by officers into the Orient Road Jail early Wednesday morning. Donaldson was arrested on four counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Seminole Heights slayings, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan announced at a news conference hours earlier. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24, wearing a white jumpsuit, is led by officers into the Orient Road Jail early Wednesday morning. Donaldson was arrested on four counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Seminole Heights slayings, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan announced at a news conference hours earlier. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Nov. 29, 2017

TAMPA — Howell Emanuel Donaldson III is scheduled to make his first court appearance at 9 a.m. today to face murder charges in a string of Seminole Heights killings.

It will be the beginning of what will likely be a legal odyssey that could last between one and three years.

During that time, his defense attorneys are expected to ask a judge to move the proceedings away from Tampa, to a place less saturated by the storm of public attention on the murders.

A request for a change of venue is the one sure thing legal experts can glean from a case where prosecutors are still assembling their evidence and defense attorneys are deciding what tact to take. However, it's unlikely a judge will move the trial.

"It's a lot more difficult than people think to get a change of venue," said Denis de Vlaming, a Clearwater defense lawyer. "They have to try to seat a jury before a judge will grant the request."

And de Vlaming said many potential jurors don't read or watch the news.

But all the attention can affect the case in other ways.

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

"That is a totally inappropriate comment for the mayor to make," de Vlaming said. "I have a feeling he misspoke. It's just an emotional thing."

It would not be surprising for Donaldson's defense to request a gag order in response to such statements, he said.

Public Defender Julianne Holt said Wednesday that she anticipates her office will be appointed to represent Donaldson in court. She declined to comment further until she learns more about the case and the posture her office will take.

Though rare, changes of venue have happened in high-profile cases like that of John Couey, who was convicted in 2007 of the Citrus County abduction and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

In the case of Casey Anthony, the Orlando mother who was accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter in 2008, a judge decided to import jurors from across the state in Clearwater.

One area a defense attorney almost certainly will look at is whether Donaldson understood what he was doing when he allowed police to search his car and examine his gun.

Consent for such searches must be done "freely, knowingly, and voluntarily," said Charles Rose, a professor of law at Stetson University College of Law.

"We really don't know yet whether there is a legal issue there," Rose said. "That's just what a defense attorney would normally do."

Defense attorneys will undoubtedly look at Donaldson's state of mind, both at the time of the crimes and as the case progresses.

"That kind of goes without saying because of the nature of the crimes themselves," de Vlaming said. "They undoubtedly will have him looked at psychologically."

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Whether the police can develop more physical evidence will also determine where the case goes.

"It's like they're building a circumstantial case because they don't have any direct physical evidence, or a confession and they don't have any eyewitnesses," Rose said.

That might not be a problem for the state, though, especially since tests of the gun confirm it is the murder weapon, according to the arrest report.

Further ahead are questions of a potential punishment.

"I would not be surprised if it became a death penalty case," he said.

Rose cited the case's national exposure and the fact that there were four separate victims as potential reasons prosecutors might seek death. Nevertheless, it is still too early to say whether capital punishment might be a viable option, Rose said.

The decision will fall to State Attorney Andrew Warren. Since his election as Hillsborough's top prosecutor in 2016, Warren has taken a reserved approach to the death penalty, withdrawing its pursuit in several cases he inherited. At the same time, he has declared his intent to seek death in two new cases.

"There is not a doubt in my mind that they will seek the death penalty in this case," de Vlaming said. "These are senseless killings."

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