A Prince William County judge on Thursday said that prosecutors can seek the death penalty in the case of Ronald W. Hamilton, the Pentagon information-technology specialist accused of fatally shooting his wife at their Woodbridge home and then a responding rookie police officer.
Circuit Judge Lon E. Farris denied two requests by Hamilton’s attorneys to bar a jury from weighing execution as an option in potential sentencing. Hamilton, 32, dressed in a navy blue blazer and lighter-blue collar shirt and slacks, appeared straight-faced as Farris announced his ruling.
Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert has said he is “likely” to ask a jury to impose a death sentence if Hamilton is convicted.
In court, Hamilton attorney Edward J. Ungvarsky, pointedly criticized Prince William’s longtime prosecutors for seeking the death penalty more frequently than the vast majority of other jurisdictions, arguing that Hamilton might be executed simply because of the “arbitrary” nature of where the shootings happened. If the killings had occurred elsewhere in Virginia or in a different state, Ungvarsky contended that his client would likely face — at most — life in prison if found guilty. Prince William’s high rate of death penalty cases compared with the rest of the nation’s, he said, violates Hamilton’s constitutional rights against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
James A. Willett, a Prince William County prosecutor who handled the capital murder case of Washington sniper John Allen Muhammad, who was convicted and executed, fought back against the contention that his office seeks the death penalty without careful consideration. Willett also lashed out against Ungvarsky’s motion labeling Prince William as “one of the few counties nationwide that is actively involved in seeking death and executions of its citizens.”
“It's stunning,” Willett said. “It reveals the mind-set of the defendant,” he said, adding that Ungvarsky’s criticisms of his office have “abandoned any pretense of objectivity.” He pointed at Hamilton and said there was nothing “arbitrary” in pursuing the death penalty against someone who “gunned down two people with no justification at all.”
“Yes, it is arbitrary,” Ungvarsky told the judge.
He then cited a 1998 interview that Ebert, the top prosecutor, gave to the Richmond Times-Dispatch saying that he frequently seeks a capital murder charge “even if it’s questionable as whether or not it fits in that category. ”
Ungvarsky laced his argument and written motion with numerous statistics: He said that despite a downward trend in death sentences in Virginia, Prince William leads the commonwealth with the highest number of executions since 1976 and that it still ranks among the top 2 percent of counties — 62 out of more than 3,100 — that have produced the majority of executions “in the modern death penalty era.”
A 2013 analysis by the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center found that in Prince William, there were nine executions of death row inmates between 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, and 2102.
Farris denied the defense motions but didn’t say why.
Under Virginia law, prosecutors can seek capital murder in specific circumstances that include the killing of a law enforcement officer, a murder-for-hire or the premeditated killings of more than one person within three years.
On the night of Feb. 27, Hamilton and his wife, Crystal Hamilton, 29, a recovery-care coordinator for wounded and ill Marines, had an argument in their Woodbridge home, according to police, family and friends. Crystal was planning to go out with friends for dinner, and their 11-year-old son, Tyriq, had just returned home from a slumber party and was taking a shower. But Hamilton began arguing with his wife, telling her not to go.
After Crystal Hamilton called 911, her husband threw her against a wall and shot her while their son was fleeing the house, authorities said.
Three Prince William police officers arrived, including Ashley Guindon, 28, who was on her first day on the street. When Guindon approached the door to their home, Ronald Hamilton fatally shot her with a rifle and wounded the other two officers, police said. The Hamiltons’ son, their only child, had safely reached a neighbor’s house.
The double slaying prompted an outpouring of support and grief across Washington. Thousands of people turned out for a live-streamed memorial service for Guindon, who had been sworn in the day before the shooting. Services for Crystal were held in her home state of South Carolina and at the Marine Memorial Chapel in Quantico.
During an earlier hearing, a sergeant testified that Hamilton confessed to the killings after his arrest.
For Hamilton’s family, charges that he killed his wife, let alone a police officer, generated an excruciating irony. His father, also named Ronald Hamilton, served as a former second-in-command of the Charleston, S.C., police department before retiring in 2001. The younger Hamilton has claimed, through his attorney, that his two tours in Iraq psychologically damaged him.