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Defense seeks four trials in Seminole Heights killings

The state accused Howell Donaldson of four murders in Tampa in late 2017. His defense argues that each one should be tried separately, citing differences in time, circumstances and location.

TAMPA — Over 51 days in 2017, four people were shot to death on the streets of southeast Seminole Heights in Tampa. Defense attorneys for the man the state has accused of the crimes say each murder charge should be the focus of its own trial.

In a court paper filed this week, lawyers for Howell Donaldson argue that each of the four killings is distinct in time, location and circumstances. If one trial was had for all the crimes, they argue, evidence of each murder may have the effect of bolstering proof of all the others. The result would not be a fair trial.

“While the testimony in one case standing alone may be insufficient to convince a jury of the defendant’s guilt, evidence that the defendant may also have committed another crime can have the effect of tipping the scales,” reads the court paper from Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt.

Donaldson is accused in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa, and Ronald Felton. The four were each shot over the course of several weeks in October and November 2017. The killings terrorized Tampa, generated international headlines, and spawned a massive police investigation.

On Nov. 28, 2017, a manager at the Ybor City McDonald’s where Donaldson worked notified police after he handed her a bag that held a .40 caliber Glock handgun. She said Donaldson told her to hold the bag while he went to run an errand. Donaldson later admitted the gun was his, but denied involvement in the murders.

A firearms expert with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement opined that .40 caliber bullet shell casings found at each crime scene were fired from the Glock.

Other than that, the defense says, the cases are distinct. All the killings occurred on different dates. All were at different spots in the southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood. Three doctors conducted autopsies of the victims. There was no similarity in the kind of people who were targeted. Each was shot in different parts of their body.

The fact that the same gun may have been used in each killing does not create a “meaningful relationship” that would justify lumping the crimes together, the defense argues.

Holt declined to comment for this story, but said she looks forward to having a judge hear the request in court.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Donaldson.

The state has yet to file a response to defense request, but State Attorney Andrew Warren said he will oppose the move.

“The public’s fear never took a break between the murders,” he said in a statement. “Families in Seminole Heights, terrified walking through their neighborhood, didn’t feel any relief between killings. This murder spree was one, continuous nightmare for our community — we intend to prosecute it that same way: through one trial containing all the facts.”

It’s not unheard of for the defense to seek separate trials in cases with multiple charges. Donaldson’s defense cited legal opinions from a number of similar cases.

They include a 1999 appeals court case from South Florida that involved a defendant who was accused of six strangulation murders that occurred near the Tamiami Trail area of Dade County. In that case, the killings occurred two or three weeks apart over a four-month period. A court ruled there was not enough to allow them to be tried together.

Locally, the issue has arisen in the case of Keith Gaillard, whom the state has accused of two separate homicides which occurred in the span of a few days in 2015. In that case, too, the public defender argued they should be tried separately.

“I would do the same thing,” said Joe Bodiford, a criminal defense attorney and adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law. “What is a jury supposed to think if they’ve got the state pointing the deaths — the violent deaths — of four people at one person? That then begins to just be overwhelming to the point of ridiculum.”

If the murders were tried separately, the state would be unable to let the jury know about any of the other homicides. But if Donaldson was found guilty in one case, they may be able to talk about some evidence from the first trial in the next one, Bodiford said. But they would have to avoid telling jurors about a prior conviction.

“Somebody may say, just because they have four victims, this person must have done it," Bodiford said. “Juries are not stupid, but we do have to fight human nature.”

Jennifer Zedalis, a University of Florida law professor, said a judge will have to assess whether there is a meaningful connection between the homicides to justify a single trial. The fact alone that Donaldson is charged with all four is not enough.

“I absolutely understand what the defense is arguing," Zedalis said. “They’re basically saying, look, you’re trying this guy for four separate murders just because you think you can. It’s incredibly prejudicial."

In summarizing the facts of each homicide, Donaldson’s defense also hinted at what could be points of contention in the evidence. In particular, they note that none of the bullets or bullet fragments, which killed the victims, was able to be matched or ruled out as having been fired from the Glock.

There are also eyewitness issues. When Ronald Felton, the last victim, was shot, two witnesses reported seeing multiple people running from the area.

Donaldson has a trial date set for August, but it seems unlikely a jury will hear the case that soon. Jury trials in Florida have been suspended since March as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. There has yet to be any word about when they will resume.

Both sides still have a lot of work to do. A case status report filed in May states that 94 witnesses have testified so far in pretrial depositions, but more than 200 witnesses still have to be questioned. The Public Defender’s Office noted they have more than 40 homicide cases awaiting trial, including eight death penalty cases.

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