Parents of Seminole Heights murder suspect maintain silence

The parents of the accused Seminole Heights killer, Howell Donaldson III, in court Thursday, Dec. 7. The judge ordered them to appear in court on Jan. 5, 2018, to explain why they should not be held in civil contempt for not answering questions.
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The parents of the suspect in Seminole Heights murders were in court Thursday.

Howell Donaldson Jr. and his wife Rosita say they should not be forced to offer testimony that could eventually lead to their son’s execution.

But a judge told them they must cooperate.

The Donaldsons' lawyer, Ralph Fernandez, says no parent would voluntarily offer testimony that might be used to eventually execute their own child.

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Emotionally speaking, that would be a winning argument. But as a matter of law, it has not held up in the past and did not again Thursday.

The Donaldsons entered the courthouse in Tampa declining to answer questions, which is what brought them there in the first place.

Prosecutors have gotten the same cold shoulder from the couple, who have declined to offer testimony which might help convict their son, Howell Donaldson III, the suspect in the Seminole Heights murders.

“The Donaldsons have been devastated,” said Fernandez, who added there are several reasons the Donaldsons are declining to answer prosecutors' questions.

They are, he said, emotionally frazzled by a lack of sleep, and even death threats.

But the bottom line, he conceded, was the Donaldsons don't think any parent should be forced to testify against their own child.

“No matter how it is perceived, it's testimony that is being elicited to make a determination about the life and death of their son,” said Fernandez.

Prosecutors argue there's almost no case law supporting parental privilege. And in Florida, there is no law or precedent to support the Donaldsons' position.

The couple, say prosecutors, is also in a unique position to provide information only they would know, and have been offered limited immunity to do so.

“We are seeking testimony that would only within Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson's access and knowledge,” said Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner.

So, should the Donaldsons be legally compelled to testify? Circuit Judge Margaret Taylor looked at a 2016 case from Miami.

“Is the state entitled to this?” Judge Taylor asked, “And the answer to that question, at least based on what the court has reviewed right now, the answer is yes.”

Judge Taylor then gave the Donaldsons until Jan. 5 to cooperate with prosecutors.  

Asked as they left the building if they would now do so, the couple still offered no answers.

But Fernandez says discussions between the Donaldsons about their son are legally protected by widely-recognized spousal privilege laws.

And if the Donaldsons want to appeal the parental issue all the way to the Supreme Court, Fernandez says he's ready. 

“So far, I haven't found anybody that has taken the personal angle and said ‘I would tell them everything to make sure my son was put to death.’ I don't think that that's with the founding fathers envisioned of this great nation,” said Fernandez.

Within minutes of Thursday’s ruling, the Donaldsons' lawyers had already prepared an appeal.

For now, prosecutor seem content to treat this as a civil matter just to get the Donaldson's to cooperate, but if the couple does not do so by Jan. 5, they'll have to head back to court and explain to the judge why they defied her order.

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