Case of former NASA exec charged with killing Springfield neighbor goes to the jury

A Fairfax County, Virginia, jury will resume deliberations Thursday in the first-degree murder trial of Michael Hetle, 54, of Springfield, a former NASA executive who worked at NASA headquarters in D.C. and formerly worked at the Department of Homeland Security.

Hetle is charged in the death of his next-door neighbor, Javon Prather, 24, who had served in the Maryland National Guard.

In Wednesday’s closing arguments, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lyle Burnham asked jurors to decide the case on facts and evidence — video from the defendant’s own Ring doorbell camera, which shows Prather walking from his next-door town house and knocking on Hetle’s door. The video shows Hetle answering the door with no words spoken and a burst of gunfire.

Hetle and Prather had simmering disputes since 2016, with Hetle repeatedly complaining and calling police about barking dogs and loud music. Prosecutors argued that Hetle’s anger exploded in the March 3, 2020 killing.

George Freeman, defense attorney for Hetle told the jury, in his closing statement, that Hetle shot Prather in self-defense, and that he was defending his home and family from someone he believed was a violent person. Freeman also said Hetle was unaware that Prather was unarmed, and pointed to testimony that suggested neighbors regarded Prather as aggressive and violent.

But jurors were left with a video showing Prather’s brief walk, the knock and the killing.

Burnham said the video revealed a cold-blood execution — four shots at point blank range, two in the back as Prather tumbled down the small staircase, and then a seventh shot as Prather lay helpless in the driveway.

Family members of Prather said they were warned by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office that the prosecutor would open his closing argument by showing the jury and the courtroom the dramatic video of the deadly shooting. But a friend of the family, caught unaware by the shocking video, gasped and dissolved into sobs and tears forcing the judge to order a quick recess before the closing arguments could resume.

Because of COVID-19, everyone in the courtroom was masked for the trial, and 12 jurors and two alternates sat 6 feet apart from each other within plexiglass dividers. The judge and the lawyers for both sides were also shielded by plexiglass.

Jurors are conducting their deliberations inside the spacious sealed-off courtroom instead of the closer quarters of the jury room.

Dick Uliano

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

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