TAMPA – Howell Donaldson Jr. and Rosita Donaldson weren’t even in court when attorneys began arguing Friday morning about their two-month long refusal to testify about their son, the suspect in four Seminole Heights murders.
By noon, they had been put under house arrest after being summoned to court, and bailiffs were making plans for them to be fitted with electronic monitoring devices.
Still, with their son facing the death penalty, the couple will not testify, said their attorney Ralph Fernandez.
Judge Mark Wolfe found the parents to be in indirect civil contempt of court after an hour-long hearing and ordered a six-month home confinement. Their refusal to discuss their son’s case violated a December court order compelling them to meet with prosecutors gathering evidence against Howell Donaldson III, who is charged with four counts of first-degree murder.
"The defendants have willfully and intentionally refused to provide truthful testimony as ordered through the investigative subpoena and the judge’s order," Wolfe said.
The house arrest can be lifted at any time if the couple change their mind. The State Attorney’s Office can pursue further action if the couple has not cooperated by Aug. 14, when the confinement period ends, Wolfe said.
State Attorney Andrew Warren said he was satisfied with the judge’s decision but would not say whether his office will push for jail time if the parents do not change their mind by August.
The Donaldsons are not being asked to provide incriminating evidence, he said. Prosecutors have agreed to limit questions to the suspect’s family history, his mental well-being and his whereabouts at the time of the four murders last year.
He said the state has a strong enough case to prosecute Donaldson III without their testimony but needs to know if his parents may later provide their son an alibi.
"If they’re going to come up with some excuse for on the night of this murder he was home eating pizza with us, the community, the victims’ families and the State Attorney’s Office have a right to hear that," Warren said.
U.S. law exempts people from having to testify against their spouse but only a handful of states extend that exemption known as parent-child privilege to parents.
Florida is not one of them.
Still, legal professionals said the finding of contempt against parents is rare. When investigators do question parents, they usually cooperate, said Bryant Camareno, a Tampa criminal defense attorney.
But he questioned whether house arrest will make a difference.
"I’ve seen witnesses on lesser degrees of crime thrown in jail," he said. "I don’t know if (house arrest) will help them get what they want out of these arrests."
Bernie McCabe, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney, said prosecutors have a duty to obtain all critical evidence.
"I don’t think I would hesitate to do it if it was absolutely necessary," he said.
The heart-wrenching conflict parents face when their child commits a crime was a feature of the 2004 case of Jennifer Porter, a Muller Elementary Magnet School teacher who left the scene of a fatal accident.
One witness told investigators that Porter’s mom drove the damaged car to the family home, where it sat for five days before her daughter came forward to police. Her father admitted rinsing off the car.
The couple, who were also represented by Fernandez, initially refused to talk to investigators by invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. They were told by prosecutors that did not apply since they had immunity.
A judge agreed and warned the couple they could be jailed if they did not cooperate. A few days later, they reluctantly did.
Home confinement was suggested by Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner as an alternative to incarceration when asked by Wolfe what action the state wanted the court to take.
Wolfe said the court is mindful of the difficult position the Donaldsons are in and, therefore, allowed them to leave home for religious services, to go to work, and medical appointments.
A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday morning to make sure house arrest has been implemented.
The Donaldsons’ son, who is 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 seemingly random killings terrorized the Seminole Heights neighborhood over a 51-day period until his arrest Nov. 28.
Investigators say a gun he handed to a work colleague at an Ybor City McDonald’s was the same one used in each of the four shootings, according to an arrest report.
Fernandez said it was his decision for the Donaldsons to not attend Friday’s hearing until the judge ordered their appearance. They are devastated by what has happened and he wanted to spare them additional stress.
No parent should be compelled to give evidence against their child, he added.
At an earlier hearing, Rosita Donaldson said she and her husband have two other children — a daughter, 28, and another son, 13.
Since 2002, they have run Shear Excellence Hair Academy, a cosmetology school.
Charles Rose, director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy at Stetson Law School, said he understands the Donaldsons’ dilemma but their refusal to talk will create the perception they know something that would help prosecutors.
"It’s a horrible thing for a parent to be caught between your love for your child and the demands of the government," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times