Was The Death of Ronald McKnight a Crime or Self-Defense?

A DC Superior Court judge ruled that a homicide case only has enough evidence to go to trial on a lesser charge than what prosecutors initially filed after the defense attorney argued his client acted in self-defense.

Nathan Hunter was charged with second-degree murder while armed for allegedly shooting 44-year-old Ronald McKnight in the head in a hostel bathroom on the 1600 block of 7th Street, NW, on April, 18, 2021. The defendant alleged that McKnight “bum-rushed” him in the bathroom. 

Hunter, 40, allegedly fled the scene, going to his friend’s apartment and leaving McKnight in the bathroom.  He later went to the police to discuss the incident.

The preliminary hearing spanned March 15 and 16. Prosecutors called the lead detective on the case to the witness stand to testify about his investigation. He said Hunter and McKnight were in the hostel bathroom together for more than 30 minutes.

During his conversation with law enforcement, Hunter’s hands were swollen and his thumb had been damaged.  He eventually requested a lawyer.  

The detective explained that from his many years as a detective and police officer, he believed that McKnight’s wounds were defensive.  Defense attorney Frances D’Antuono pushed back on this statement, questioning his expertise in the matter.  The detective acknowledged he was not part of the Office of The Chief Medical Examiner.  

D’Antuono then called an expert in forensic pathology who has performed many autopsies to the witness stand. The doctor explained that there is a reference scale to give the range of PCP concentration, being 20 Nanograms per Milliliter to 240 Ng/Ml.  According to a toxicology report, McKnight had 190 Ng/Ml of PCP in his bloodstream.  

PCP is a dissociative hallucinogenic drug. During cross-examination, the prosecution asked the doctor if everyone’s reaction to PCP was the same. The doctor responded that it was not; however, the most common symptoms were aggravation, panicking or paranoia and sometimes violence.  The prosecutor pushed harder on this asking if everyone’s experience would be different.  

The doctor replied, yes.

D’Antuono noted past offenses McKnight allegedly committed, both of which are believed to have involved PCP. One offense was for a burglary while the other was for the defendant allegedly causing a nuisance in front of a 7-11. One of these cases was sent to a mental health court and the other was closed due to McKnight’s passing.  

The final witness to testify was a private investigator hired by D’Antuono.  He said he searched the crime scene and did not find any gun paraphernalia in the bag Hunter left behind.

The defense argued that the evidence indicates McKnight followed Hunter into the hostel, and then into the bathroom. At some point, a gun was pulled and a fight broke out, leading to the deadly shooting. D’Antuono argued that probable cause could not be found for second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The prosecutor countered that they were not seeking a finding of substantial probability, a higher standard than probable cause, but there was ample evidence to support a probable cause finding for the charge of second-degree murder. He argued the evidence only shows that two men had a fight in the bathroom and now one of them is dead.   

The prosecutor said they cannot know for sure who had the gun first. He also alleged that Hunter failed to abide by the duty to retreat law that exists in Washington.

For the charge of second-degree murder while armed, Judge Robert Okun said that “while it was very, very close” he could find no probable cause.  He instead found probable cause for voluntary manslaughter while armed.

Although D’Antuono requested his client’s release, the prosecutor countered saying that for a charge like this there is ample reason for Hunter to remain detained. Judge Okun decided to keep him at DC Jail for the time being.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for trial dates has been tolled. With that tolling order nearing its end, Judge Okun set an Aug. 4 trial date.

Parties are scheduled to reconvene for a status hearing on April 20.