TAMPA — The case of Howell Donaldson, the man accused of committing four murders in Tampa’s southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood in 2017, will be the subject of four separate trials, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Attorneys for Donaldson argued in a morning court hearing that each of the four crimes was distinct in time, location and circumstances. Testimony and evidence of one crime could bolster the proof of the others, resulting in an unfair trial, they said.
“It’s our position that there is no meaningful relationship between these offenses or these victims,” Assistant Public Defender Dana Herce-Fulgueira said in court.
Prosecutors argued that the crimes were part of one continuous spree, that all four killings occurred less than a mile apart, and that they were committed with the same weapon. The similar circumstances justify a single trial, they said.
After hearing arguments from both sides, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward said she would grant the request to split the case into four trials.
The judge’s decision was a significant victory for the defense, led by Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt. It presents a significant challenge for the prosecution, which will have to prove each individual murder case to four separate juries.
“It’s going to make it harder,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren told reporters afterward. “But make no mistake, it doesn’t change our resolve.”
Donaldson, 27, faces four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton. The four were shot over the course of several weeks in southeast Seminole Heights in October and November 2017.
On Nov. 28, 2017, a manager at the Ybor City McDonald’s where Donaldson worked notified police after he handed her a bag that contained a .40 caliber Glock handgun. She said Donaldson told her to hold the bag while he went to run an errand.
A firearms expert later opined that bullet shell casings found at the scene of each homicide were fired from the Glock, according to court records. Donaldson admitted the weapon was his, police said, but denied involvement in the murders.
In court, Herce-Fulgueira highlighted numerous differences in the facts of each crime. The victims did not know each other. They were different ages, different races and genders. They were killed at different times and in different places throughout the Seminole Heights neighborhood in the span of 36 days.
The fact that the same gun may have been used is not enough to tie the cases together, she said. She also pointed to similar cases involving separate crimes, which resulted in separate trials.
Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon emphasized the relatively short distance between all of the murder scenes, the same brand of bullet shell casings found at each and the relatively short time period between the killings, among other similarities.
He cited case law from a handful of notorious murder cases in which there were multiple victims. One of them was the Tallahassee case of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who one night in 1978 attacked four women, killing two, in a Florida State University sorority house, then attacked a fifth woman about an hour later in an apartment a few blocks away. A single trial was held for that set of crimes.
The circumstances of the Seminole Heights killings, Harmon said, “intermesh and interweave these crimes in a fashion where they should be joined.”
Warren said his office respectfully disagreed with the judge’s decision, and that they would have to consider whether they would appeal.
The state has said it intends to seek the death penalty if Donaldson is convicted.
Casimar Naiboa, the father of Anthony Naiboa, told the Tampa Bay Times he believes separate trials will make a death sentence less likely.
“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “They should appeal the judge’s decision for the well-being of the citizens of Hillsborough County.”
Naiboa said his family has experienced fatigue at the case’s duration. It has been almost three years since his son was killed as he walked along N 15th Street, south of Hillsborough Avenue, after getting off a city bus.
He said attorneys have asked him and his wife to testify in depositions, but they refused, believing they wanted to “dig up dirt” about his son. They feel re-victimized, he said.
“We still hurt,” he said. “We miss Anthony. Anthony was us.”
Joe Bodiford, a criminal defense lawyer and adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law, said it is not uncommon for defense attorneys to seek separate trials, a legal tactic known as severance of offenses. But separate trials doesn’t necessarily make a case harder to prove.
“It could certainly make it more cumbersome and laborious for the state to have to go through four separate trials, but the quantum in evidence in each particular case is what it is,” Bodiford said. “If it’s a strong case, then the state will get a guilty verdict, then they move on to the next one and repeat the process.”
Locally, the issue came up in the case of Keith Gaillard. He is awaiting trial for two murder charges, related to two homicides that occurred on different days in 2015. One death happened in the city of Tampa, another happened in Hillsborough County’s jurisdiction. In that case, a judge granted the public defender’s request to sever the offenses.
“It truly is driven by the individual facts of the case,” Bodiford said. “That being said, death is different. And the utmost care and pause is generally taken by trial court judges to make sure that every nuance of the trial is properly conducted. Making sure that there is no chance of any unfairness to the defendant is almost hyper-critical in death cases.”
If the state secures a conviction in one case, it is possible that a jury in a subsequent trial could hear some of the relevant evidence from the first, under what’s known in Florida as the Williams rule.
Likewise, if the state continues to seek the death penalty, prosecutors can use a previous homicide conviction as an aggravating factor to warrant a death sentence.
It is not clear when Donaldson might face trial or which case might go first. The next court date is set for January.