TAMPA — A judge wanted to know whether search warrants related to the investigation of four Seminole Heights murders need to be kept out of public view.
The answer, voiced in a court hearing Wednesday morning in the case against Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, was a resounding yes.
Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner told Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe he was concerned about any documents in the Donaldson investigation being inadvertently made public. He wanted the documents visible to only the State Attorney’s Office, law enforcement and the judge.
Public Defender Julianne Holt, whose office represents Donaldson, agreed.
The judge left in effect an order sealing the documents. He said if prosecutors want him to view any of the confidential materials, they should present him with actual paper documents rather than electronic copies to prevent any leaks.
Donaldson, 24, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20; and Ronald Felton, 60.
The four were all shot to death over the course of 51 days in October and November on the streets of southeast Seminole Heights. The killings terrorized the neighborhood, spurred a police manhunt, and drew national media attention.
Donaldson was arrested Nov. 30 after he handed a bag containing a handgun to a fellow employee of a McDonald’s restaurant in Ybor City. The gun, police determined, was the same one used to commit all four murders.
Authorities have remained tight-lipped about the investigation since then.
But in early December, prosecutors attempted to question Donaldson’s parents, Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson, about their son’s background, developmental history, and state of mind. The parents refused.
That prompted a judge to initiate civil contempt proceedings against them. If they continue to refuse to speak with prosecutors, the Donaldsons could face sanctions, including a fine or possible jail time.
Their attorney, Ralph Fernandez, attended Thursday’s hearing, asking Judge Wolfe to conduct separate hearings for the son and the parents. The judge said Fernandez would have to make a formal request in writing.
The next hearing is set for Jan. 26.
The state has yet to announce whether they intend to seek the death penalty against Donaldson should he be convicted at trial.
State rules of criminal procedure give prosecutors 45 days from the date of arraignment to announce a decision about capital punishment. That deadline will be in early February.