Ex-Portsmouth officer Stephen Rankin will have appeal heard by Virginia Supreme Court

By Scott Daugherty, The Virginian-Pilot – 10/23/2018

The Virginia Supreme Court will hear the appeal of a former Portsmouth police officer convicted of killing an unarmed man while responding to a shoplifting report.

The court rarely takes up criminal appeals, but announced this morning it would review Stephen Rankin’s case.

The decision came one week after Rankin’s attorneys argued in front of a three-justice panel in Richmond that their appeal had merit. According to an order granting the hearing, at least two members of that panel wanted to consider the defense’s allegation that the trial judge “erred and abused its discretion” when he let the jury hear a statement Rankin made to a security guard indicating he had previously shot and killed another person.

The announcement does not mean Rankin will have his conviction overturned. It means only that his attorneys will get to file additional briefs in the case and make oral arguments. The office of Attorney General Mark Herring will respond.

Still, Rankin’s defense attorneys viewed the decision favorably.

“This is a pretty big deal,” James Broccoletti said. “They don’t take many cases.”

Most criminal appeals are heard only by the state’s Court of Appeals, which decided earlier this year to uphold Rankin’s conviction.

The high court took up only 23 criminal appeals last year, according to statistics maintained by the court. It refused 708.

And L. Steven Emmert, an appellate lawyer based in Virginia Beach who publishes Virginia Appellate News and Analysis, said the high court upholds most of the convictions it reviews. He said the Supreme Court has decided 18 criminal cases so far this year, and that the justices ruled in favor of the prosecution in 16 of those.

Rankin, who is set to get out of prison next month, was convicted of manslaughter for killing 18-year-old William Chapman II. A jury recommended a 2½-year sentence.

According to testimony during his trial, Rankin was investigating a shoplifting report the morning of April 22, 2015, when he approached Chapman outside the Walmart on Frederick Boulevard. An altercation ensued in the parking lot, during which Rankin tried to use his Taser. It was knocked to the ground before Rankin used a handgun to fire two shots.

Some witnesses across the street said Chapman charged Rankin, but a Walmart security guard nearby said Chapman merely jerked his shoulders forward.

After the shooting, Rankin told the guard it was his “second one.” It was a reference to the fact that he also shot and killed 26-year-old Kirill Denyakin in 2011 while responding to a burglary call in Olde Towne.

When Rankin originally appealed his conviction, Broccoletti and fellow defense attorney Nicole Belote attacked the verdict on several grounds. Among other things, they argued Circuit Judge Johnny Morrison was wrong to prevent them from telling the jury about Chapman’s criminal record and several writings discovered in his backpack that they alleged showed he was “deeply disturbed” and “obsessed with death and violence.” They also said the judge should have declared a mistrial when it was determined a friend of the Chapman family spoke with a juror before the sixth day of trial.

Over and over again, however, appellate judges determined Morrison was within his rights to rule as he did.

Now, Rankin’s appeal hangs solely on whether it was appropriate for the judge to let the jury hear Rankin’s comment about this being his second shooting.

An appellate win could ultimately send Rankin back to prison. If a majority of the Supreme Court’s seven justices finds the statement was unduly prejudicial to Rankin, they could only order a new trial – not find him innocent.

And if Rankin was tried again and convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the jury could recommend he receive up to 10 years in prison.

“Obviously, that’s a risk,” Broccoletti said. “The choices were put to him and he wanted to exonerate himself.”

Scott Daugherty, 757-446-2343, scott.daugherty@pilotonline.com​