TAMPA — Prosecutors trying the case of accused Seminole Heights killer Howell Donaldson III were dealt a blow last fall when they lost their bid to try him for all four murders at once.
But on Friday, they made another attempt to ensure jurors in each murder trial learns about the other three deaths.
Using a maneuver known in Florida as the Williams Rule, Hillsborough prosecutors argued that the facts of each of the infamous 2017 slayings are similar enough to show Donaldson had a pattern of behavior — and that makes each murder relevant to the others.
“There were obvious and startling similarities,” said Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon.
The argument was the latest move by the state to tie the cases together, which could carve out a more convincing path toward conviction. So far it hasn’t been successful. In October, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward sided with the defense and decided to hold four separate trials for each murder, rather than consolidating them into one trial.
“The fact that the State (and even the media and/or public) has ‘defined’ the case and the Defendant as a ‘serial’ case/killer does not, in and of itself, make the crimes committed similar to each other in that regard,” Ward wrote in her ruling.
Defense attorneys referenced that document in their argument against the state’s Williams Rule request, saying the judge had already highlighted the many differences in the cases.
“We believe the court should find there is no meaningful relationship between these killings,” Assistant Public Defender Dana Herce-Fulgueira said.
Ward said she will likely make a ruling sometime next week.
Donaldson, 28, stands accused of fatally shooting Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton in October and November 2017. The shootings all took place less than a mile from each other in southeast Seminole Heights. Residents lived in terror as Tampa police conducted a massive manhunt for the killer.
Officers arrested Donaldson after a manager at the Ybor City McDonald’s where the defendant worked told police he had given her a .40-caliber Glock handgun to hold onto while he ran an errand. A firearms expert said shell casings found at the scene of all four murders came from that Glock, according to court records. Donaldson told police the gun was his but denied any role in the murders.
If he is convicted, the state said it intends to seek the death penalty.
Among the case similarities the state argued at Friday’s hearing:
They occurred in the dark, involving pedestrians who were unarmed and alone, in the same neighborhood within weeks of each other. The victims were all shot within close proximity and still had their belongings with them, indicating theft wasn’t a motive. The victims were strangers to Donaldson, and to each other.
“It is that unusual pattern or mode of operation that points to the identity of the defendant,” Harmon said.
At one point, the judge asked Harmon if he wanted jurors to hear details of all four murders at each trial, or if he was trying to link one or two specific cases together. The prosecutor said he was leaving it up to Ward. She told him that was a “mistake on your part, quite frankly.”
Donaldson was present in court, wearing a red jumpsuit and blue surgical mask. So were three family members of the victims, who watched the proceeding over Zoom video.
At the end of the hearing, Ward asked lawyers for the state and defense if they were ready to set any of the trial dates. The state said yes, but Holt said no.
Kenny Hoffa, whose daughter Monica was the second victim killed, asked the judge via video if it was normal for a case to take this long to reach trial. Ward explained that death penalty cases are drawn-out affairs and the pandemic likely slowed things down, too. Hoffa said it seemed like the defense was dragging its feet.
“We are just waiting for justice, and it’s really hard,” Hoffa said. “Every anniversary of this we’re reliving everything.
“We’re just ready to move on.”