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Accused Seminole Heights killer fights for his life in court

The death penalty remains on the table in Howell Donaldson's case after a judge denied several motions.

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla — Editor's Note: The photo in the player above is from a previous hearing.

Attorneys for accused Seminole Heights serial killer Howell Donaldson III asked a judge to throw out the death penalty for several reasons, but all were denied.

Donaldson was in court for the hearing, as were his parents.

The 29-year-old is accused of killing Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa, and Ronald Felton in October and November of 2017. 

Donaldson’s defense attorneys argued he was denied due process because prosecutors didn’t inform the grand jury that indicted Donaldson about aggravating factors. Factors that would make these capital murder cases. 

“We are asking the court to preclude capital punishment because the court did not, and the grand jury did not, have a chance to review the aggravating factors in this case,” said defense attorney Carolyn Schlemmer.

The judge denied that and a handful of related motions, so the death penalty remains on the table. 

Donaldson’s defense lawyers also asked that impact testimony from relatives and others be limited in any penalty phase by being written ahead of time to avoid any surprises. 

That motion was granted for the most part, but the judge said it’s difficult to control spontaneous emotional outbursts.

The defense also asked that testimony from Anthony Naiboa’s father and his stepmother be excluded after several failed attempts to depose them but prosecutors pushed back on that.

“This is sort of an extreme circumstance and that they are not only witnesses but they are family members of the deceased in this case,” said prosecutor John Terry. “And so, to relive this and to discuss it is very painful for both of them.”

The judge agreed to give both sides one more chance to depose Naiboa’s father and his stepmother who was in court. That deposition is set for April 22. 

Legal experts have said these sorts of motions don't often have much of a chance in court, but it’s necessary, they say, for the defense to lay the groundwork in the event of an appeal.

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