TAMPA — When Howell Donaldson faces the first of four murder trials, a jury will not hear evidence related to the other three Seminole Heights killings he’s accused of committing.
On Thursday, a week after prosecutors asked a judge to allow evidence of the four murders into each of the four trials, a judge declined their request in a written order.
After hearing arguments detailing supposed similarities between the killings, “the Court does not find the details surrounding the four murders to be sufficiently similar to warrant admission in each individual trial,” Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward wrote.
The ruling is a significant setback for the state.
It was not immediately clear whether they could appeal.
“Separating the trials and now limiting how the evidence can be presented certainly creates new challenges for our prosecutors,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said in a statement. “We respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision and are determining our next steps as we remain committed to delivering justice for these victims and their families.”
Donaldson’s attorneys have argued that allowing a jury to hear evidence that the defendant may have committed other crimes could have the effect of “tipping the scales.” They also contended that there is no meaningful relationship between the four killings, which occurred at different times and locations over a period of several weeks.
Judge Ward last year ruled that the case should be split into separate trials for each murder, rather than a single trial for all four.
Donaldson, 28, is accused of killing Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton. The four were each shot to death in October and November 2017 in Tampa’s southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood.
The apparently random shootings spurred international headlines and a massive police investigation.
Donaldson was arrested in late November 2017 after a manager at the Ybor City McDonald’s where he once worked told police that he’d given her a bag that held a .40 caliber handgun. Tests of the weapon linked it to bullet shell casings found at the scenes of the four murders, according to court records. Donaldson told police the gun was his, but denied any role in the murders.
A trial date has not yet been set.
If Donaldson is found guilty, the state plans to seek the death penalty.