Life-or-death decision faces jury in cop killer case
MANASSAS, Va. (AP) — Prosecutors asked a jury Tuesday to impose what would be the first death sentence in Virginia since 2011 against an Army staff sergeant who killed his wife and a rookie police officer who responded to her call for help.
“Put him in the grave because that’s what he deserves,” prosecutor Matthew Lowery urged the jury as he pointed to the defendant, Ronald Hamilton, 34, of Woodbridge.
Hamilton has already been convicted of capital murder for fatally shooting his wife, Crystal Hamilton, and Officer Ashley Guindon in February 2016. Guindon was working her first shift after being sworn in.
Two officers, Jesse Hempen and David McKeown, who responded to the Hamilton home along with Guindon were also shot and suffered serious injuries but survived.
Since the jury has already found Hamilton guilty, the only decision that remains is whether he will be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Defense attorney Ed Ungvarsky urged the jury to show Hamilton mercy.
“This isn’t a question of fact,” Ungvarsky told the jurors. “This is a question of morality. What does your conscience tell you?”
Ungvarsky also emphasized Hamilton’s military service, which included two tours in Iraq. He cited testimony from Hamilton’s fellow soldiers that Hamilton started out as an unruly soldier, but eventually accepted discipline and evolved into an excellent sergeant who once helped a fellow soldier escape mortar fire.
“He went from being a screwup soldier to a model soldier,” Ungvarsky said. “He showed the potential for change, the potential for growth.”
Prosecutors, though, accused Hamilton, who wore his military uniform through much of the trial, of trying to hide behind the respect our nation provides to veterans to escape responsibility.
Prosecutor Richard Conway told the jury that soldiers “deserve respect and deserve protection, but they don’t get a pass for capital murder.”
Hamilton spent much of Tuesday’s hearing with his head buried in his hands, wiping away tears as lawyers argued over his fate.
Through the course of the two-month trial, jurors learned that Hamilton had been angered that his wife planned to attend a male dance revue with her girlfriends, and that Hamilton had vowed to prevent her from attending prior to the fatal shooting.
During a confrontation in the couple’s Woodbridge home, Crystal Hamilton called 911 for help after her husband threw her into a wall and slammed her to the floor. Jurors heard the 911 call which ended with Crystal Hamilton pleading, “Stop!” Prosecutors say Ronald Hamilton shot his wife four times with a Glock handgun, all while the couple’s son, Tyriq, was in the home.
Several officers responded to the 911 call. The officers tried to enter the house to check on Crystal Hamilton’s welfare, but Ronald Hamilton refused to let them in. One of the officers then kicked open the front door, only to find Hamilton crouched with an AK-47 rifle opening fire. All three officers who initially responded to the home were struck. Hempen and McKeown testified at the trial, and attended Tuesday’s arguments as well.
Conway said Hamilton’s history of violent behavior was evident years before the fatal shootings in February 2016. He cited several instances of road rage, including one in which he confronted a police officer. He also cited an assault by Hamilton on a man he believed was having an affair with his wife, though Hamilton avoided charges in that case.
“He richly deserves the ultimate penalty, I suggest to you,” Conway said.
Ungvarsky reminded jurors at various times that a life sentence without parole is a harsh punishment in and of itself.
“This door leads to a world of steel and bars and concrete and lights that don’t turn off,” Ungvarsky said, pointing to the courtroom door from which Hamilton is escorted to and from the courtroom and jail.
The jury of 10 women and two men began deliberations Tuesday afternoon. The last time a jury imposed a death sentence in Virginia came in September 2011, according to Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.