MANASSAS, Va. – A Virginia jury spared the life of an Army staff sergeant convicted of fatally shooting his wife and a rookie police officer after deadlocking Thursday on whether he should be executed.
The jury sent a note Thursday morning after 12 hours of deliberation over three days saying that it was split 6-6 on whether Ronald Hamilton, 34, of Woodbridge should be executed. Under Virginia law, a life sentence without possibility of parole is imposed any time jurors are not unanimous for execution.
"The jury is the voice of the community. Obviously in this case the community is split right down the middle," Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert said. No jury in Virginia has imposed a death sentence since 2011.
Hamilton had already been convicted of capital murder for the deaths of his wife, Crystal Hamilton, and Officer Ashley Guindon, who was working her first shift after being sworn in. Hamilton shot and killed his wife in the family's Woodbridge home in 2016. He then shot three police officers who responded. Guindon died. The other officers suffered serious injuries but survived.
Prosecutors had urged the jury of 10 women and two men to "put him in the grave" for his actions.
The two officers who survived the shooting, Jesse Hempen and David McKeown, were among those who testified during the two-month trial.
McKeown testified that he kicked in the door to check on Crystal Hamilton's welfare after Ronald Hamilton denied the officers entry. He then saw a crouched Hamilton wielding a military rifle.
He said he saw the flash of the muzzle but didn't remember hearing the shots.
"I started feeling the impacts on my body," McKeown said. "I tried to draw my gun, but my arm stopped working."
Hempen testified that after being shot, he could see Guindon, eyes open and lying face down on the front lawn.
"I felt bad that I didn't know her name," he said. "I was calling out, 'Hang in there, new girl. Hang in there, new girl.'"
Defense attorneys urged the jury to show Hamilton mercy. They emphasized Hamilton's military service, which included two tours in Iraq. They put on testimony during the trial's sentencing phase that Hamilton turned his life around in the Army, evolving from an unruly soldier into one who earned the admiration of his peers.
"He went from being a screwup soldier to a model soldier," defense attorney Ed Ungvarsky said. "He showed the potential for change, the potential for growth."
After the trial concluded, Ungvarsky said he and the other defense lawyers "are obviously happy that the jury was able to look within its own humanity and find the humanity within" Hamilton and spare his life.
After the jury indicated it was split, prosecutors asked the judge to instruct the jury to keep deliberating and try to reach a unanimous verdict. Defense lawyers said that such an instruction, which is common in many criminal cases, is inappropriate in a death penalty case. Virginia law is explicit that a life sentence should be imposed when a jury does not unanimously vote for death.
Judge Steven Smith opted against pressing the jurors for unanimity.
"The jury has given me clarity," Smith said, noting the 6-6 split. "The jury is deadlocked."
Guindon's mother, Sharon Guindon, said after the verdict that "the jury got it wrong." She said she had a feeling that the jury was struggling with its deliberations and that perhaps one or two holdouts were seeking a life sentence, and that she was surpised by the even split.
She said she had hoped for a death penalty to send a message: "If you kill a police officer, you are going to get death."
Hamilton showed little reaction as it became clear that his life was spared. Family members seated behind him wept.
Outside the courtroom, some of the victims' family members wept in one another's arms.
Ebert, who has served as the county's top prosecutor for 50 years, has sent 10 people to Virginia's death chamber, more than any other prosecutor. Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the jury's decision to spare Hamilton is significant, especially considering the fact that it came from Prince William County, which has sent so many people to death row during Ebert's tenure.
"I really am wondering if this marks the beginning of the end of the death penalty in Virginia," Stone said.