TAMPA, Fla. - The parents of Howell "Trai" Donaldson, III were ordered Wednesday to appear before a judge after refusing to give prosecutors testimony about their son, who is the accused Seminole Heights killer.
If they continue to refuse to cooperate, Howell, Jr. and Rosita Donaldson could end up in jail on contempt of court charges.
During the hearing Thursday, their attorney, Ralph Fernandez will have to explain to a judge why they should not be held in contempt.
The Donaldsons were subpoenaed by prosecutors to, according to court documents, give information about their son's "developmental history, mode of transportation, gun possession and ownership, and state of mind."
"Each time the response that was elicited was, 'I'm not going to answer that question,'" Fernandez said. "There's no sense of duty for you to give only what someone else seeks to make a better case, shall I say, against their son when that would be manifestly unfair, premature and untimely."
Howell Donaldson, III is accused of murdering Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton using the same weapon. He was taken into custody last week at the McDonald's in Ybor City, where he works, after handing a gun to a co-worker and asking her to watch it.
The coworker then notified a Tampa Police officer, leading to Donaldson's arrest.
Fernandez says it is unreasonable to expect parents to be able to testify against their son.
"They are willing to go to jail not to testify against their son," he said. "They believe in America. That is a core value of the religious, principled, patriotic segment of the population. We will not testify against their son. This goes back to the early days of the Bible."
During a news conference Wednesday, State Attorney Andrew Warren said it's both reasonable and necessary for prosecutors to question the Donaldsons.
"We are taking every investigative avenue and using every investigative tool at our disposal to build as a strong a case as possible to hold the defendant accountable for his crimes," Warren said. "I'm a father, so I recognize and sympathize with the unenviable situation that they're in, but we have an ethical obligation to exhaust every investigative avenue to make sure we understood what happened in this case."
Florida law protects spouses from having to testify against one another, but parents don't have that same immunity in cases involving their children.
Tampa attorney and legal expert Anthony Rickman told FOX 13 it's unusual for parents to be called in for questioning, but it's not unheard of.
"It's a wild card. You put a family member on the witness stand, who knows what they're going to say. They have an interest in protecting their child," he said. "Prosecutors in general, they tend to avoid having family members testify for or against family members in situations like this."
Warren said he understands Donaldson's parents might be willing to go to jail to avoid providing testimony, but "I don't think it's going to come to that and we're not at that point yet."
The Donaldsons case is expected to be heard at 10 a.m. Thursday.