TAMPA — A judge ordered parents of the man accused in the Seminole Heights murders Thursday to appear before her next month and explain why she shouldn’t hold them in civil contempt for refusing to answer investigators’ questions.
Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson, the parents of 24-year-old Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, were unhelpful when asked to discuss his developmental history, state of mind, gun possession and other topics, according to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office.
Other than providing birth dates, names and addresses of family members, and brief biographical information, both refused to answer questions.
Their son was arrested Nov. 28 on four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton. The four were shot in October and November in southeast Seminole Heights, a violent spree that terrorized the neighborhood and attracted national attention.
Circuit Judge Margaret Taylor set a new court date of Jan. 5, when the Donaldsons will have to explain their refusal to answer questions. If they continue to refuse, they could face penalties, including a fine or possible jail time.
Ralph Fernandez, an attorney for the parents, said afterward that he hoped something could be worked out before then.
"It is a carrot being held out to see if we can reach some kind of agreement," he said. He said he was pleased that the judge chose keep the proceedings in the civil realm.
Fernandez explained that the Donaldsons have been devastated since their son’s arrest. They have had trouble sleeping, have thought about leaving town, and received at least one death threat.
The idea of testifying against their son was not something they were in a position to consider, he said, especially with the possibility that he could face the death penalty.
"They knew when they went in that they were not going to answer questions that would lead to the execution of their son," the attorney told Judge Taylor.
The Donaldsons sat quietly in the second row of a cramped courtroom behind a throng of reporters during the half-hour hearing. Afterward, they shuffled into a hallway, whispered to their attorneys, and appeared to weep.