Trial in Seminole Heights killings to begin in August, lasting 2 months

A judge set a trial date Tuesday for Howell Donaldson III, who is charged with four Seminole Heights murders.
Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies escort Howell Donaldson III into a Tampa courtroom in 2018.
Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies escort Howell Donaldson III into a Tampa courtroom in 2018.
Published Dec. 6, 2022|Updated Dec. 7, 2022

TAMPA — The trial of Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, the man accused of four killings in Tampa’s southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood, is set to begin at the end of next summer and could last as long as nine weeks.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward on Tuesday set Aug. 7 as the anticipated start date for the extraordinary case, with the trial scheduled to continue through September and early October.

The schedule would make Donaldson’s case the longest Tampa Bay-area criminal trial in recent memory. Most similar cases typically take about three weeks.

But Donaldson faces unusual circumstances — namely, four separate murder charges, intense public interest and media attention, plus the prospect of a death sentence if he’s convicted.

In recent discussions with the judge, attorneys estimated jury selection alone could take as long as two weeks.

Each of the four killings could be the subject of a week of testimony. If Donaldson is found guilty, the case will move into a penalty phase, which the lawyers estimated could last two weeks.

Related: In reversal, defense seeks single trial in 4 Seminole Heights slayings

The slayings occurred in October and November 2017.

That fall, Tampa police asked for the public’s help amid a string of shootings in southeast Seminole Heights, a nondescript neighborhood in central Tampa.

Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton were each shot and killed apparently at random while out walking at night or in the early morning. Tampa police determined the same gun was used to commit all four slayings.

The killings spurred international attention amid a manhunt for an unknown person who came to be described as a serial killer.

Donaldson was arrested in late November of that year when his manager at the Ybor City McDonald’s restaurant where he worked told a police officer after she said he handed her a bag that held a gun, according to court records.

Investigators examined and tested the weapon, a .40-caliber Glock, which Donaldson had purchased in early October. Police said it was the same gun used in all four slayings.

Donaldson, 29, has been jailed and awaiting trial for five years.