TAMPA, Fla. – The parents of the 24-year-old man suspected in a string of fatal shootings that terrorized a Florida neighborhood must "show cause" on why they shouldn't be held in civil contempt for refusing to answer investigators' questions about the case, a judge ruled Thursday.
Hillsborough County Judge Margaret Taylor set a Jan. 5 hearing for Howell Donaldson Jr. and Rosita Donaldson. State Attorney Andrew Warren requested the hearing after the Donaldsons refused on Tuesday to answer questions about their son, Howell Emanuel Donaldson III. Prosecutors were seeking information about his background, developmental history, gun possession and state of mind.
"This is a rarity," State Attorney Andrew Warren said while addressing the issue on Wednesday. "Because most people understand that they have a duty to answer questions. And when that duty is explained to them by a judge, they're willing to provide us answers."
Ralph Fernandez, an attorney for the couple, said they haven't slept much since their son was arrested Nov. 28 and charged with four counts of first-degree murder for the apparently random shootings that began in early October in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood.
In motions filed Wednesday, the state attorney's office said the parents' refusal to testify despite having received a court-authorized subpoena constitutes indirect criminal contempt. The judge questioned whether the goal was to punish the parents or simply to get them to comply with subpoenas. Taylor ruled that the couple must "show cause" that they shouldn't be held in civil contempt.
Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner told the judge that the state believes there is no privilege that allows the Donaldsons to avoid answering questions, which is what prosecutors were seeking when they requested the hearing.
The parents were being interviewed in separate rooms Tuesday when they refused to continue answering questions.
The Tampa Bay Times reports Rosita Donaldson told investigators she and her husband also have a 28-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. She said the family had frequent gatherings around the holidays.
"Thanksgiving everyone was at our house," she said, before her attorney told her that if she wanted to refuse to talk she could just say no.
When investigators asked if she would continue, she declined, adding, "With all due respect, I'm not answering any more questions."
"We're not only trying to build a case against the defendant, we're trying to ask the broader question of why — a question that the victims' families and the community deserves to have answered," Warren, the state attorney, said Wednesday.
Unlike some states, Florida has no law establishing "parent-child privilege," which would keep communications between them confidential.
Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.