In the final days of what may be his final death-penalty case, the 81-year-old Virginia prosecutor ambled into the courtroom on an October morning, halting midway down the aisle.
Paul Burns Ebert, the Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney for the past 50 years, shifted to his right, closer to the pews. He clutched his cane. And he turned to greet the mother of the slain police officer whose murderer was facing life in prison or execution.
Sharon Guindon wrapped her arms around Ebert. Her eyes welled up as she patted the prosecutor wearing a patterned suit that drooped over his large frame. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you.”
Two days later, in a county that has long embraced the death penalty, a jury of 10 women and two men refused to recommend the ultimate punishment for Ronald Hamilton, who had killed his wife, Crystal Hamilton, and then Ashley Guindon, who was working her first shift as a Prince William police officer.
For Ebert, who had sent more killers to death row than any other prosecutor in Virginia, it was a loss that stung. Prince William once ranked in the top 2 percent of jurisdictions across the country responsible for the majority of executions in the modern era, according to a 2013 study by the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
Ebert said he thinks the Hamilton case is the first time his office has failed to persuade a jury to recommend a death sentence.
It was particularly galling to prosecutors and relatives of the victims, because the judge, Steven S. Smith, refused Ebert’s request that the jury continue debating life or death after they had reported a 6-6 split on the third day of deliberations for one of Hamilton’s two capital murder charges. On the other charge — for the killing a law enforcement officer — jurors unanimously agreed to give Hamilton life in prison without parole.
The loss in Smith’s courtroom was also deeply symbolic: Smith was once a prosecutor on Ebert’s team. His father, H. Selwyn Smith, was Ebert’s predecessor and boss. When the elder Smith became a Prince William judge, he imposed the death sentence on a Woodbridge man based on a jury’s recommendation, giving Ebert his first death-penalty victory in 1982 — the county’s first in 60 years.
At his age, Ebert does not speak as volubly or clearly as he did when he first took office on Jan. 1, 1968. He left most of the arguing in the Hamilton case to three other prosecutors on his team.
But his presence in the Prince William courthouse signaled his insistent belief in the death penalty, a sentence that is banned in the District, Maryland and 19 other states, and that has fallen in public approval since the 1980s, Gallup polls show. The last time someone in Virginia was sentenced to death was in 2011, according to Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Three people remain on the state’s death row.
Ebert acknowledged that winning death-penalty cases — which has given him national prominence, particularly after he secured an execution for Washington sniper John Allen Muhammad — is a lot tougher these days in Prince William County.
Once rural and overwhelmingly white, the county is now approaching a half-million residents, and the majority are minorities. The jury in the Hamilton case included five people of color.
Prince William was so small a half-century ago that the position of commonwealth’s attorney was not a full-time job yet. There was no police department — just a sheriff’s office.
“The demographics of Prince William were relatively conservative all those years and much more pro-death,” Ebert said. “And I always knew someone on the jury. Now, I seldom know someone on the jury.”
He estimates he has had about 30 capital-murder cases, half of which he has sought the death penalty for.
The life-without-parole verdict for a cop-killer was deeply disappointing for Ebert: The two other times he had sought the death penalty for the murder of a law enforcement officer, he won.
Ebert’s ties to the police department, established in 1970, are deep. He proposed its creation. Inside his office, he keeps in a frame his typed-out application asking a Prince William judge to appoint the department’s first 37 officers, all men.
“It was personal,” Ebert said of the Hamilton trial. “It was clear [he] deserved the death penalty. . . . Police officers need to know they’re going to have someone stand up for them, and they’re devastated when they think the court system can’t do justice for them.”
Ebert was still a part-time prosecutor when the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976. It put a new tool at his disposal — one he believes deters would-be killers.
He dismisses the idea that life in prison without parole is worse than a death sentence.
“No defendants choose death,” Ebert said.
And when he talks to victims’ relatives, they tell him that the death penalty provides closure. “It gives them solace,” he said. “They know the person who took away their loved one is getting their life taken.”
His first death-penalty victory came in 1982, when he persuaded a jury to recommend the execution of John Joseph LeVasseur, a 19-year-old from Woodbridge who stabbed a woman with a fork and ice pick more than 40 times.
Besides Muhammad, who terrorized the Washington area during a 2002 shooting rampage, Paul Warner Powell was perhaps the most heinous murderer in Ebert’s history. Powell stabbed Stacie Reed, a 16-year-old girl, to death in her heart and waited for Kristie Reed, her 14-year-old sister, to come home, before raping her and slitting her throat. Powell got the death sentence, but the Virginia Supreme Court threw it out on a technicality. But then, Powell wrote a bragging letter to Ebert — later published in Harper’s Magazine — admitting that he had tried to coerce Stacie to have sex with him before killing her.
Hamilton, 34, was a Pentagon information-technology specialist when he got into a violent argument with his wife on the night of Feb. 27, 2016, in their Woodbridge home. With their 11-year-old son in the house, Hamilton shot her with a handgun four times.
When police arrived, Hamilton, who had served in the Army and deployed to Iraq twice, grabbed his AK-47. Prosecutors said that the move showed his intent to kill officers with a high-powered rifle and with bullets that could pierce through their ballistic vests.
“I blindly shot my gun,” he told detectives the night he was arrested, according to a transcript of the interview that jurors did not see. “I never, never wanted . . . to hurt anybody, hurt [the police officers]. I wanted them to just back off and let me go . . . inside of my house.”
When Hamilton told police he had “panicked” and expressed remorse, the officers pressed him to acknowledge that he had intentionally killed his wife, 29, and Guindon, 28. Otherwise, one detective warned, they would tell the prosecutor, judge and jury that he was “a [expletive] coward and killed two people and didn’t say a [expletive] word about.”
Hamilton’s attorneys tried multiple times to avoid a lengthy, expensive death penalty trial. They offered plea deals in which Hamilton would take life in prison without parole, but Ebert would not budge.
“He killed a police officer. That was the sticking point from when the case came in,” said Ed Ungvarsky, one of Hamilton’s defense attorneys. “And it was always the sticking point.”
During the trial, which began in September, Hamilton did not testify. Prosecutors did not admit into evidence the recording of his interview with police. They believed his statements were too “circuitous” and self-serving, especially if jurors saw them without a chance for prosecutors to cross-examine Hamilton on the witness stand, said Richard A. Conway, the chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney.
On the day of closing arguments in the sentencing phase of the Hamilton trial, police officers filled the pews.
“Put him in the grave,” prosecutor Matthew B. Lowery urged the jury, “because that’s where he belongs after what he’s done.”
After the jury began deliberations, Sharon Guindon waited in the courtroom hallway, clutching a wooden cross and reading from a prayer book.
“I asked Paul, ‘What do you think?’ ” Guindon recalled, “and he said, ‘We don’t know. We’re trying our best.’ ”
The next day, the jurors reported that they were split. When the judge refused to allow them more time to deliberate, Guindon was crushed. She went back to Ebert’s office, where he and others tried to console her.
“Paul said he’d never seen anything like that,” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘What happened?’ I just felt so drained. I felt so lost.”
Prosecutors were furious. They considered the jury divided but not hopelessly deadlocked, as Smith had declared. Conway told The Post that he felt as if Smith rushed a decision, denying the victims’ relatives a thorough process.
The deliberations were so heated that the jurors’ raised voices could be heard in the hallways, Ebert said.
“I am disappointed. I don’t think justice was done,” Ebert said. “But I am willing to accept the jury. They are the voice of the community.”
Whether it was his final capital-murder case, Ebert will not say. He is on his 13th term as commonwealth’s attorney and could decide to run for a 14th next year. When told that some people believe he might pass the baton to another prosecutor on his team and not run for reelection, Ebert smiled and asked, “Who said that?”