Dec 7, 2017, 1:27 PM ET

Judge orders parents of suspected Tampa serial killer to appear in court after their refusal to testify

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A Florida judge has ordered the parents of a suspected serial killer to appear in court next month to explain why they shouldn't be penalized for refusing to speak to investigators.

In a Hillsborough County courtroom this morning, Judge Margaret Taylor ordered Howell Donaldson Jr. and his wife, Rosita Donaldson, to return to court next month to show cause for why they should not be held in civil contempt of court.

Their 24-year-old son, Howell Donaldson III, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in connection to the recent slayings that terrorized Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood.

State prosecutors say the Donaldsons have willfully refused to provide testimony and answer questions about their son, despite a subpoena that ordered them to do so. Florida state law does not allow for parent-child privilege.

“We are seeking to conduct a thorough investigation of the matters involving the violent loss of four lives. And as our statutory obligation, our ethical obligation dictates us to exhaust every lawful investigative avenue," assistant state attorney Jay Pruner told the judge this morning. "We are seeking testimony that would only be within Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson’s access of knowledge. That’s the purpose of this motion ultimately; that’s our intent and our hope they would comply and answer our questions."

Howell Donaldson Jr. and Rosita Donaldson were subpoenaed to speak with investigators Monday. The couple appeared at the state attorney's office Tuesday but refused to answer any questions related to the investigation of their son's alleged involvement in the killings, according to court documents.

Defense attorney Ralph Fernandez told the judge the Donaldsons are "devastated" and have received death threats since their son's arrest last week.

“Admittedly, they knew when they went they were not going to answer questions that would lead to the execution of their son,” Fernandez told the judge this morning. “That’s why this is a difficult cause because of the fact that from the inception that’s why the Donaldson’s have been devastated. Not only the personal tragedy, but they have extended their condolences repeatedly to the victims that suffered greatly."

Prior to today's hearing, Fernandez told ABC News that the Donaldsons were "fully advised" on their actions and are "ready to take the consequence." He described their situation as "tough" and "complex."

"I think it shocks the conscience of Americans to be part of a system of justice that is identical on this issue as North Korea, Cuba, Syria and Iran, where parents are compelled to testify against their children and children against their parents," Fernandez told ABC News Wednesday.

PHOTO: Howell Emanuel Donaldson III is pictured in an arrest photo distributed by the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office. Donaldson is facing four counts of premeditated murder for a series killings in Tampa, Florida.Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office
Howell Emanuel Donaldson III is pictured in an arrest photo distributed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Donaldson is facing four counts of premeditated murder for a series killings in Tampa, Florida.

Howell Donaldson III was arrested Nov. 28 after his manager at a McDonald's restaurant in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood alerted police to a McDonald's food bag containing a handgun. Investigators later matched the firearm to the same weapon used in a string of fatal shootings in the Seminole Heights neighborhood between Oct. 9 and Nov. 14.

The first three victims were killed within 11 days in October. Benjamin Mitchell, 22, was killed Oct. 9, and the body of 32-year-old Monica Hoffa was found Oct. 13, half a mile from where Mitchell was killed. Anthony Naiboa, a 20-year-old man authorities described as having mild autism, was killed Oct. 19 after taking the wrong bus home from work, according to police.

The fourth victim, 60-year-old Robert Felton, was fatally shot from behind in the early hours of Nov. 14.

Howell Donaldson III, a Tampa native and graduate of St. John’s University in New York City, is being held in a Hillsborough County jail without bond. A pretrial detention hearing scheduled for Tuesday was canceled because the case has not yet been assigned to a division. He has not yet entered a plea.

Investigators are still unsure of a motive behind the four killings and do not yet know of a connection between Howell Donaldson III and the neighborhood where the killings took place. Police do not believe there are any other suspects in the case.

The Donaldsons held a news conference last Friday, stating their "devastation" at the news of their son's arrest and how they prayed for the families of the victims.

"I prayed for those families when it first started," Rosita Donaldson said, holding back tears. "And then when they arrested my son, devastation, because I love my son and it was disbelief that this was happening to our family. And we question why."

ABC News' Julia Jacobo contributed to this report.

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  • Another commenter

    Now I find myself wondering how often this judge has ordered a suspect's parent or parents to testify to the police or prosecutor of a crime about their child? Is it routine or common? Is it routine but rare? Has it never been done? Obviously the prosecutor has something he needs somebody to say and the parents are the only ones he has to say it.

  • Thomas

    Do they really need the testimony of the parents to get a conviction?

  • Lee Thompson

    I understand they want to protect heir son, as any parent would. However, they should consider the family and friends of those who were murdered.

  • just saying

    maybe they just didn't recognize their son (who lived with them) from the videos posted every day, the co-workers did.

  • E Sverdrup

    Throw the parents in jail too. If the son had signs of mental illness, they would be helping him to talk. But if they knew he was killing and did nothing they are guilty too.

  • darthhillbilly

    No matter what he became, he was their baby first...

  • scott McIntosh

    The right to remain silent guaranteed constitutional right.

  • hooderaw

    I'm sure at this point the parents would rather go to jail then testify against their son. I don't blame them. They say the parents have immunity but that means nothing when it comes to helping kill ur own kid.

  • brickmette

    Seems to me that the concept of "testifying" (as in a court of law, under oath) should be considered to be different, and less compulsory, than "speaking with investigators" (outside of a court of law). The legal issue would seem to revolve around the protections against self-incrimination.

  • brickmette

    Seems to me that the concept of "testifying" (as in a court of law, under oath) should be considered to be different, and less compulsory, than "speaking with investigators" (outside of a court of law). The legal issue would seem to revolve around the protections against self-incrimination.

  • Brian 9876

    All they had to do was lawyer up. Their lawyer would have gone in with them and told them what to say and what not to answer. Instead, they now face charges. They are lucky if the cops don't snoop around and find some real criminal activity they were up to.

  • Edup McD

    Right or wrong, I would consider suicide before I would testify against my child that could lead to his/her execution ...
    Eight years of suffering survivor's guilt over the death of my husband in a car collision that I had absolutely no hand in tells me the responsibility of answering duch questions would be too enormous a burden on my mental health - kapooie, snap, crackle, pop ...
    I am absolutely positive I would once again lose the will to live - the inevitability is too frightening - suicide would be quicker & easier ...

  • Captn Blynd

    In their situation, I would simply lie. Nothing they asked would get a truthful answer. I would tell them they cannot trust my answers because I am confused, in shock and uninformed. Why? because it will not be my words used to execute my child. I am not omnipotent to know if this person is innocent or guilty before a trial. I certainly would not make statements which could be used out of context to influence the trial. Sorry, but unless they can show the parents are involved, they should not be compelled to testify. You are treating the parents as criminals before the trial of their child. Guilty by association before the accused is even tried. No, I would not cooperate.

    If the child is guilty, execute him. I see no justification for treating the parents as criminals to be questioned against their will.

  • jon rhodes

    Parents love their children unconditionally and so these parents must be totally devastated. I find it hard to know what it's like to be in their shoes and so I'm going to be slow to condemn their actions. They are probably nearly paralyzed. We need to step back and give them some room.
    And yes, my heart goes out to the families of the victims of this hateful crime. And I hope they can find some small chunk of relief as I know their suffering is horrible. But beating up the parents of the killer isn't a real good answer either. Hopefully the answers needed to understand this deplorable action will be found.
    And yes, check the box for bleeding heart liberal. I'm guilty.