Joe Henderson: Why pursue execution for Seminole Heights killings?

Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24,  faces the death penalty in the Seminole Heights killings. [Times file]
Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24, faces the death penalty in the Seminole Heights killings. [Times file]
Published Jan. 25, 2018

Should the state of Florida be in the eye-for-an-eye business with convicted murderers?

That issue is in the spotlight again after Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren announced he will seek the death penalty if accused Seminole Heights mass killer Howell Emanuel Donaldson III is convicted.

Yes, the killing spree for which Donaldson stands accused was horrific. He is accused of shooting four people to death during a killing rage that rattled Seminole Heights and the entire Tampa Bay community.

As Warren framed it in a news conference announcing the decision, "The death penalty is for the worst of the worst, crimes that are far more egregious than the typical murder. And that's what we have here."

If we're honest though, here's what else we have: Capital punishment is nothing more than good old fashioned, state-sanctioned revenge. Florida has administered it 95 times since executions resumed in 1976, but it takes forever to play out and accomplishes, well … what?

Oh, I get the argument that having an inmate pay like this for a crime that can't be reversed may bring some sense of comfort to the victim's family. That's why I'm not totally against capital punishment.

The system doesn't work though, and there is no way to make it better. That's why the odds are good Donaldson won't be executed, even if convicted and condemned.

In 2015, the Washington Post reported only 16 percent of more than 8,000 inmates sentenced to death had actually been executed. More than 3,000 sentences have been overturned on appeal, either through new evidence that cleared the individual or through a reduction in sentence.

Even when justice is administered, it can take decades for a condemned person to take that final walk. Of the 346 men and three women on Florida's death row, 10 have been waiting since the 1970s.

James Rose was sentenced to death on May 13, 1977, after being convicted of a murder in Hillsborough County.

During that time, we have had eight U.S. presidents and seven elected governors in Florida. The space shuttle program began and ended, and Hillsborough County's population grew from 607,000 to 1.3 million.

Meantime, the Pew Research Center and CBS News had polls that show nationwide support for capital punishment has fallen by double-digit percentage points to 40-year lows.

In Philadelphia, for instance, voters just elected a new district attorney who has vowed to end the practice, according to, in a county that five years ago had the third-highest population on death row in the country.

And Tina Felton, sister of Seminole Heights victim Ronald Felton, said the death penalty is "not what I want for my brother."

This will be a high-profile test of Florida's new rules that require unanimous consent of 12 jurors that a convicted murderer die for the crime. One juror can decide that nope, can't to it, and that's that. Before, all prosecutors needed was a majority vote.

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Some men are sitting on Death Row in Florida because a jury voted 7-5 for execution. It may be just a coincidence, but our state also leads the nation in the number of overturned sentences for the ultimate penalty.

Even so, Warren didn't really have a choice whether to seek the death penalty in this case. Given the nature of the crime of which Donaldson stands accused, people in Warren's position have a responsibility to prosecute cases like this to the max.

So that's what he is doing.

I get it. I can't blame families of any of the victims for wanting vengeance. Anyone can understand that.

But if we're saying the death penalty is a deterrent for would-be killers, no. It doesn't work, more people are seeing that, and I believe eventually it will go away.