In his roughly two decades practicing law, Harrisonburg attorney Gene Hart handled five death penalty cases.
In 2018, Hart and fellow attorney Edward Ungvarsky successfully fought to spare Ronald Hamilton from capital punishment.
The Prince William County case was the most recent death penalty case to be presented to a jury in Virginia.
With Gov. Ralph Northam’s signing of a bill Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, Hamilton’s case might go down in the record books as the last capital punishment case in Virginia.
While Hart said he hasn’t always been staunchly opposed to the ultimate punishment, he is now. Others, he said, always have been.
“People have worked their entire lives for this moment,” said Hart, who watched a livestream of Northam signing the bill at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, home to Virginia’s execution chamber.
Hamilton, an Army staff sergeant stationed at the Pentagon, was convicted in 2018 for the 2016 fatal shooting of his wife at their Woodbridge home and a responding police officer.
After convicting Hamilton, a jury split 6-6 on whether to impose the death penalty.
Hart said the case revealed that the public opinion on capital punishment was shifting. It was no longer a slam-dunk for prosecutors.
“The public mood had been changing more than the mood of politicians,” he said.
In February, the bill to abolish the death penalty was finalized, with all of the the Shenandoah Valley’s state legislators voting against it.
“I’m happy to see the change,” Hart said. “I think it’s time.”
He said he previously was indifferent on the subject, but over the years, watching the death penalty sought somewhat randomly made him change his mind. He also said there’s a racial component. He said Black and other people of color are more likely to have the death penalty sought against them, especially if the victim is white.
He said he hasn’t seen that practice take place in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, but said other areas have experienced it.
The last execution from Rockingham County took place nearly two decades ago. In 2000, Daniel Lee Zirkle, 32, of Timberville, pleaded guilty before the case reached a jury to killing his daughter and her half sister. Zirkle asked to be executed and was put to death in 2002.
The last person to be sentenced to death locally was Ivan Teleguz.
Teleguz was convicted of murder-for-hire in 2006 in connection with the 2001 killing of his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Sipe, in Harrisonburg. A jury sentenced him to death.
However, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe commuted his sentence from death to life in prison in April 2017, just before Teleguz was scheduled to die by lethal injection.
“In this case, we now know that the jury acted on false information, and that it was driven by passions and fears raised — not from actual evidence introduced at trial — but from inference,” the governor said at a press conference at the time. “To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear.”
His statement contradicted the rulings of several judges during Teleguz’s appeal process.
Hart represented Michael A. Hetrick, of Warren, Pa., now 46, who was convicted of killing Sipe on Teleguz’s behalf. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but Hetrick cooperated in the case and Hart negotiated a life sentence in exchange for Hetrick’s testimony.
Hart handled three additional local death penalty cases.
In 2005, Nicholas Everette Wright pleaded guilty to killing Bruce “Buddy” Nelson Jr. and was sentenced to life in prison in deal that spared him of the death penalty. Hart, along with attorney John Holloran, represented Wright.
Hart also represented Javon Arrington.
Arrington, 28, pleaded guilty in June 2015 to the shootings of Eun Sim Kim, 51, and her husband, Jae Young Kim, then 54, during a robbery at their Clover Hill-area store on Feb. 15, 2014. Eun Sim Kim died in the attack. Her husband survived.
Arrington was convicted of six crimes, including felony robbery, attempted capital murder and first-degree murder, and was sentenced to three life terms, plus 11 additional years.
Prosecutors originally sought the death penalty.
Most recently, Hart represented Brent Smallwood.
Smallwood, 30, was charged with capital murder in the death of Margene Caplinger, who died four days after a September 2017 attack at her home north of Harrisonburg. Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.
While future legislatures and governors could reinstate the death penalty, Hart hopes they won’t.
“I’ll be very happy not do another one,” he said.