Jury in death penalty trial hears from Va. officers who survived fatal shooting
An Army staff sergeant was charged with fatally shooting his wife and a cop in Feb. 2016
MANASSAS, Va. — Police officer David McKeown had just kicked in the door of a northern Virginia home, trying to check on the welfare of a woman who called 911 in a panic seeking protection from the husband who was attacking her.
As McKeown made his way inside, Army Staff Sgt. Ronald Hamilton was waiting for him with a military-style rifle.
"All my vision went to was the barrel of the gun," McKeown testified Wednesday, telling his story of the February 2016 shooting that left two people dead, including a fellow officer, and two others severely injured.
He said he saw the flash of the muzzle but doesn'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. I knew I needed to get out of the way of the rifle."
McKeown and the other officer who survived the shooting, Jesse Hempen, testified at the death-penalty trial of Hamilton. Hamilton is charged with capital murder in the fatal shootings of his wife, Crystal Hamilton, and Officer Ashley Guindon, who was working her first shift.
Defense attorneys do not dispute that Hamilton shot his wife and the officers, but argue that he lacked the premeditation necessary for a capital-murder conviction. They said in opening statements that the Hamiltons' marriage was troubled and their argument that day was precipitated by his anger over her plans to attend a male dance revue with friends. They argue that he shot indiscriminately at the officers without intending to kill them.
McKeown, though, testified that Hamilton was crouched and in a shooting position when he fired. After McKeown was shot, he said he stumbled off the porch and fell flat on his face on the Hamiltons' front lawn. He could hear the blood pumping out of his arm. He got on his radio to alert fellow officers that shots had been fired and that the shooter had a rifle, which could cut through any ballistic vests officers would be wearing for protection. And he gave the code "signal one," which means an officer is in imminent danger.
The code alerts police to "bring the cavalry," McKeown said, his voice breaking slightly, the only such instance in an otherwise matter-of-fact description of the shooting and the injuries he suffered.
The testimony Wednesday from McKeown and Hempen was their first public account of the shooting. McKeown glanced frequently at Hamilton, wearing his military dress uniform, during his testimony, while Hamilton hung his head and avoided eye contact, occasionally rubbing his eyes.
Hempen was the first officer to arrive, and testified that Hamilton answered the door and came outside to speak briefly with him. Hamilton insisted that his wife — who had already been shot — was not in the home, and he refused Hempen's increasingly insistent demands to be let inside.
McKeown and Guindon, who arrived about a minute after Hempen, arrived to find Hempen pushing against the front door trying unsuccessfully to keep it open.
After the shooting, McKeown testified that he knew his circumstances were dire by the reactions of the officers who arrived to render aid.
"They were trying to stay calm, but they were definitely panicked — I could see their faces and hear their voices," he said.
McKeown said he has had at least 15 surgeries since he was first brought in to Inova Fairfax Hospital, most of them in an effort to reconstruct a badly damaged right elbow. He showed his mangled arm to jurors during his testimony and said he only has limited use of it. He is currently assigned to the training academy because his recovery is insufficient to resume patrol duties.
"I feel useless," he said.
Hempen, for his part, said after he was shot in the upper leg, he couldn't help but think of former Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor, who died from a loss of blood after being shot in the thigh during a home invasion.
Hempen said he tried to use his belt to make a tourniquet around his leg to stop the bleeding, but his belt "snapped in half. ... Was not too pleased about that," he said drily, noting he may have shouted some curse words. The wound created a hole in his leg the size of a baseball, and jurors saw photos of the significant scarring that remains.
From where he had taken cover, he said he could see Guindon, eyes open and lying face down on the 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.'"