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Hillsborough State Attorney will seek death penalty in Seminole Heights killings

TAMPA — Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren will seek the death penalty for Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, the man charged with killing four people last year in southeast Seminole Heights.

"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," Warren said in a Tuesday morning news conference.

RELATED: Seminole Heights slayings: Man, 24, faces four counts of murder (Nov. 28, 2017)

Donaldson, 24, is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, 22, Monica Hoffa, 32, Anthony Naiboa, 20, and Ronald Felton, 60.

The four were each randomly shot to death over several weeks in October and November. The slayings terrorized local residents, drew national media attention and spurred a massive manhunt for the killer.

Donaldson was arrested Nov. 28 after he gave a bag containing a handgun to a coworker at a McDonald’s restaurant in Ybor City. Police said ballistics tests show the weapon was used to commit all four murders.

Warren said he made the decision to seek the death penalty after reviewing the evidence, analyzing the legal factors, speaking with the victims’ families and "taking time for the quiet reflection that this tremendous responsibility demands."

The case involves what Warren called two of the most serious aggravating factors: Donaldson killed four innocent people and did so in a "cold, calculated and premeditated manner." He said there is no evidence that Donaldson is mentally ill or of any other mitigating factor that would "give us pause about our decision to go forward."

"A prosecutor’s pursuit of justice should be tempered by mercy," Warren said. "But some crimes are so unconscionable, so hard to fathom, that we must leave mercy to a higher power and instead focus on achieving justice for the victims and their families."

Warren said some of the victims’ family members preferred the death penalty. Others wanted a sentence of life in prison.

"But all of the victims’ families were okay with the choice to proceed with the death sentence," he said.

Casimer Naiboa, the father of murder victim Anthony Naiboa, said he was pleased with Warren’s decision.

"We still miss Anthony," he said, "but the wheels of justice have begun turning."

Naiboa thinks the decision will deter other people from committing similar crimes.

"He’s sending a message," Naiboa said. "If people are going to start shooting people at random, they’re going to pay the highest punishment."

Tina Felton, sister of Ronald Felton, said she personally is opposed to the death penalty, though others in her family have different views. Her stance, she said, is rooted in her Christian faith.

"I think he is listening to the families and going by what they say, but that’s not what I want for my brother," Felton said.

Since his arrest, the question of Donaldson’s motive has remained publicly unanswered. Warren declined to comment Tuesday about what the investigation has revealed.

He said he believes Donaldson can get a fair trial in Hillsborough County despite the publicity the case has received.

"We have an amazing constitutional system that provides so many safeguards for them,’’ Warren said. "We see no reason why that won’t be sufficient in this case."

He said it’s likely to be "a few years" before the case goes to trial.

The office of Public Defender Julianne Holt, which is representing Donaldson in court, declined a request for comment on the state attorney’s decision.

Warren said he notified Gov. Rick Scott of his decision Tuesday morning.

"The governor wished me well in the prosecution of the case and offered his support to do whatever he can to support the victims and their families," Warren said.

Since he took office last year as the county’s elected top prosecutor, Warren has withdrawn from the death penalty in several murder cases he inherited, and vowed to review several others. At the same time, he has declared an intent to seek capital punishment in three other cases.

RELATED: Andrew Warren threads the needle in death penalty debate (Oct. 2, 2017)

He has said he considers potentially mitigating factors like mental illness in assessing whether a case meets the legal criteria for capital punishment. Several of the cases in which he has declined to pursue the death penalty have involved defendants who experienced mental health issues or intellectual disabilities.

RELATED: New burden for families of Seminole Heights murder victims: weighing in on the death penalty (Dec. 22, 2017)

The defendant’s parents, Rosita and Howell Donaldson Jr., are facing civil contempt proceedings because of their refusal to answer prosecutors’ questions about their son.

Those proceedings have been combined with their son’s criminal case, but his defense attorneys want that to change. On Monday, Holt’s office filed a written request to separate the two.

A hearing for both cases is scheduled for Friday morning. Warren said he hopes both sides can find a resolution.

"We believe Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson have valuable information that can shed light on the defendant’s actions and his motives, and as much as I empathize with their terrible situation, they have a legal duty to provide that information," Warren said. "The community deserves that information and frankly we owe it to the victims’ families to seek it."

No matter what punishment Warren chose to pursue, his decision would carry political implications, said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida.

"I think he’s in political jeopardy if he didn’t do it in this particular case," Paulson said. He noted that Floridians historically have supported capital punishment in certain circumstances, including cases of mass murder or serial killing.

"He was elected to a position where his duty is to fulfill the law and that law in the state of Florida includes the death penalty," Paulson said.

Warren’s pursuit of the death penalty distinguishes him from Aramis Ayala, his counterpart in Orlando. Ayala, like Warren, was elected in 2016 on a platform of criminal justice reform. She later made national headlines and touched off a fight with Gov. Scott in the state Supreme Court when she declared she would never seek the death penalty in any case.

Warren acknowledged Tuesday that capital punishment is a "politically charged issue."

"My focus isn’t on the politics," he said. "My focus is on doing what’s best to hold the defendant accountable for these crimes."

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: SEMINOLE HEIGHTS SLAYINGS

Seminole Heights slayings: Man, 24, faces four counts of murder (Nov. 28, 2017)

51 days: A timeline of the Seminole Heights killings in Tampa (Nov. 29, 2017)

Cell tower data, like that used to link Seminole Heights suspect to slayings, is common police tool (Nov. 29, 2017)

Seminole Heights killings: Seven things you need to know about Howell Emanuel Donaldson III (Nov. 29, 2017)

State Attorney: Man accused in Seminole Heights killings could face death (Nov. 30, 2017)

What comes next for the man accused in four Seminole Heights murders? (Nov. 29, 2017)

What it’s been like living in a neighborhood held hostage by a serial killer (Dec. 3, 2017)

Parents of Seminole Heights murder suspect refuse to talk to investigators; judge to rule (Dec. 6, 2017)

Motive still a mystery in Seminole Heights murders but crises marked suspect’s upbringing (Dec. 21, 2017)

New burden for families of Seminole Heights murder victims: Weighing in on death penalty (Dec. 22, 2017)

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Hillsborough State Attorney will seek death penalty in Seminole Heights killings