Judge warns accused serial killer's parents: Cooperate or explain why not

- The parents of accused Seminole Heights serial killer Howell 'Trai' Donaldson, III now have a choice: Answer prosecutors' questions or possibly be held in contempt of court next month.

Judge Margaret Taylor ordered Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson back to court on January 5, when she will decide if the couple will face a civil contempt citation for not cooperating with investigators.

Trai Donaldson III, 24, is accused of murdering Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa, and Ronald Felton using the same gun. He was taken into custody at the McDonald's in Ybor City, where he worked, after handing his gun to a co-worker in a food bag. The employee turned it over to police.

During Thursday's hearing, state prosecutors said their goal is not to punish the Donaldsons, but rather, to convince them to testify on their son's background, mental state, and gun possession.

"There is no privilege, derived from either the constitutional or statute, that allows them to avoid answering questions," said Prosecutor Jay Pruner. "Their willful failure to answer questions is a contemptuous act of the authority of this court," he added.

The Donaldsons' attorney, Ralph Fernandez, told the judge his clients are going through a lot emotionally.  He said they've had trouble sleeping, they've thought of leaving the state, and they've even received death threats since their son's arrest.

RELATED: Accused killer's parents 'heartbroken' for victims' families and their son

Judge Taylor decided that if the Donaldsons refuse to answer questions under oath, they could face civil contempt of court, rather than criminal. The decision means the couple could have to pay fines, but they would not face jail time. 

It's a decision that the judge could change after the couple's January 5 hearing if they continue not to cooperate.

Their next court date is January 5 at 10 a.m.

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