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Seminole Heights murder trials can include evidence from other killings, court rules

In the case of Howell Donaldson, an appeals court Friday overturned a ruling that limited what evidence the state can use in each of four trials.
Howell Donaldson, the man accused of four murders that occurred in Tampa's southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood, appears in court during a 2020 hearing.
Howell Donaldson, the man accused of four murders that occurred in Tampa's southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood, appears in court during a 2020 hearing. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Apr. 8|Updated Apr. 8

TAMPA — Prosecutors will be able to talk about evidence of other crimes — specifically that four separate Seminole Heights shootings were linked by the same gun — in the four murder trials of Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, an appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal on Friday overturned an earlier trial court ruling that barred the state from using evidence of the other murders in each trial.

The fact that the same gun was used in each homicide is relevant for the state to establish that Donaldson was the perpetrator, wrote appellate Judge J. Andrew Atkinson.

Donaldson, 29, is accused in the slayings of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa, and Ronald Felton. The four were each shot to death, apparently at random, over a 51-day period in the fall of 2017 in Tampa’s southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood. Police found spent .40-caliber bullet shell casings at the murder scenes.

Donaldson was arrested in late November 2017 after his manager at an Ybor City McDonald’s restaurant notified police that he’d given her a food bag that held a .40-caliber Glock handgun. Police determined the weapon was the same one used in all four murders.

Donaldson’s public defenders asked to split the case into four trials, arguing that doing so was necessary for a fair determination of his guilt or innocence in each case. Judge Samantha Ward agreed.

The state then asked to use evidence of the other murders in the four trials. They argued that such evidence was necessary to establish that Donaldson committed each crime, and that the other murders were relevant to refute a potential defense that someone else may have had possession of the weapon.

But the judge declined. She opined that the individual cases were not similar enough. The state appealed, prompting Friday’s ruling.

“We agree with the court’s decision and we are continuing to prepare for trial, using all the available evidence to prove that he murdered four innocent people,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said in a statement.

A trial date has not yet been set.

If Donaldson is found guilty, prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty.

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