Murder trial averted; Chester Gap 23-year-old could serve seven years for shooting death of his girlfriend
Grief and regret were palpable in Rappahannock County Circuit Court Monday morning (Oct. 31), when 23-year-old Chester Gap resident David Michael Williams was arraigned on an amended charge of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death last December of his girlfriend, Brittney Danielle Koster.
Koster, a student at George Mason University and an employee of the Dumfries Food Lion, was 25 when she died.
Williams pleaded guilty to the reduced charge as part of a plea agreement. He had been scheduled to stand trial Monday for homicide.
According to an unusually detailed “stipulation of facts” submitted to the court along with the plea agreement, Williams and Koster were watching TV after midnight Dec. 15 in the basement of Williams’s parents’ home on Nez Perce Way. While joking around, Koster picked up Williams’s 9mm semiautomatic pistol, a gun he had bought just months before but had never used, and chambered a round before she gave the pistol back to Williams.
Williams proceeded to eject the round Koster had chambered, but also unknowingly chambered a round himself before ejecting the ammunition magazine from the pistol’s handle. He stated to police that he thought the gun was unloaded when he pointed it at Koster and expected to hear a click when he pulled the trigger. Instead, the gun fired and the round hit Koster in the neck and traveled through her right lung. She stood up, called his name and then fell. She never regained consciousness.
It was the first shooting death in Rappahannock County since 2010.
In the courtroom, Williams, wearing a suit and tie, stood quietly with his attorney Frank Reynolds as Circuit Court Clerk Peggy Ralph read the charges. Besides manslaughter, Williams was also charged with felony reckless handling of a firearm. (An additional misdemeanor charge of brandishing a firearm will be dropped at Williams’s sentencing, scheduled for Jan. 24.)
Before addressing the charges, Judge Herman A. Whisenant spoke to the almost packed gallery — members of Williams’s family on one side, Koster’s family members on the other.
“I understand this could be an emotional matter for some of the people in the courtroom,” Whisenant said. “If you don’t think you can control yourself, I’ll give you the opportunity now to leave. If you can’t control yourself and I have to remove you from the courtroom, it will be worse for you.” No one left. Koster’s mother wept silently.
Referring to the six-page plea agreement, Whisenant went through the charges one by one, asking after each if Reynolds or Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff had any objection. Neither did, the plea agreement having been formulated over several weeks between the two attorneys and both families, and finalized only days before the trial was to begin.
Whisenant led Williams through a routine series of questions designed to establish that the defendant is fully aware of the charges and is pleading guilty knowingly and willingly before the court accepts the guilty plea.
After requesting a full pre-sentencing report, Whisenant accepted the plea agreement and set the January sentencing date.
As part of the plea agreement, Williams’s bond was revoked and he was ordered to be remanded to the custody of the sheriff. He will be held at the Rappahannock Warren Shenandoah Regional Jail pending sentencing.
In the quiet courtroom, the only sound was the jangling of metal handcuffs and the final click as a Rappahannock County Sheriff’s deputy locked them on Williams’s wrists. As he was led out, Williams’s face was a study in shock and grief.
Tighter than usual security
On a normal court day, visitors pass through a metal detector just inside the courthouse door, and then they are additionally checked by a deputy with a handheld metal detector wand. Cell phones are prohibited in the courthouse and visitors’ bags are searched. The number of bailiffs and RCSO deputies present depends on several factors. For instance, if incarcerated defendants have been transported from one of the regional jails to appear in court, there is a greater presence of officers. But on a more routine day, law enforcement presence is minimal — a bailiff or two inside the front door and two more in the courtroom.
For the Williams arraignment, a court observer familiar to the court, judges and deputies was told that purses were not allowed in the courtroom. In addition to walking through the metal detector and being wanded by the deputy, her pant legs and boots were also patted down. This was no normal day in court.
In the courtroom itself, Sheriff Connie Compton stood at the top of the stairs, while her chief deputy Major John Arstino sat in the rear of the gallery. Several more plainclothes and uniformed deputies were stationed around the room and on the stairs, a visual reinforcement of Whisenant’s warning against emotional outbursts in the courtroom.
What happens next?
Per the plea agreement, “the parties will request a full pre-sentence report,” a document and process that looks at a defendant’s background and is used by the judge to determine if there are extenuating circumstances that could affect sentencing.
“A full report provides the official version of what happened [during and after the incident], as well as David’s version of what happened,” Reynolds said after Monday’s hearing. “A full report will also look at his personal history, such as his family background, church affiliation, education, criminal record, and so forth, so that the judge can know and understand as much as possible about the defendant at sentencing.”
The recommended sentence detailed in the plea agreement for the manslaughter charge is 10 years in state prison, with three years suspended. The charge of reckless handling of a firearm carries a five-year sentence, but the agreement asks that all five years be suspended. In all, if the judge agrees, Williams will serve seven years in prison.
In addition, he will be on probation after his release from prison — five years of supervised probation, followed by five years unsupervised. He will also be required to pay restitution to Koster’s family for Brittney’s funeral and burial expenses.
Williams will be 30 when he’s released from prison and 40 when he’s completed probation. Before Dec. 15 of last year, Williams was planning to take some more college courses. Now, said Reynolds, he’s hoping to take online courses while incarcerated to continue his education.
When asked, in a later phone conversation, if seven years is a long time in prison for manslaughter, Reynolds answered, “The sentencing guidelines for involuntary manslaughter call for a prison term of from one to 10 years.” Several factors went into determining the appropriate term, he said, such as “the seriousness of the charge, the interest of the community in the case, the commonwealth’s attorney wanting to send the message that you can’t handle guns [recklessly], and the wishes of the Koster family.”
There’s also the uncertainty inherent in a jury trial. “David agreed to seven years, partly because of what he might have faced had the case gone to trial.” said Reynolds. “He also wanted to show that he takes full responsibility for what happened. In my first few meetings with him after the incident, he never asked what would happen to him. His concern was for the damage and loss he caused Brittney’s family. He told me, ‘The only thing I can do to make up is to do as many good works as I can in my life.’ ”