Supreme Court to hear arguments in ex-Portsmouth officer Stephen Rankin’s appeal

By Scott Daugherty, The Virginian-Pilot – 2/26/2019

He’s served his 2½ year sentence and is a free man. But a former Portsmouth police officer found guilty of killing an unarmed man wants the Virginia Supreme Court to toss out his manslaughter conviction — and open the door for him to go back to prison.

Attorneys for Stephen Rankin and the state attorney general’s office will face off this morning in Richmond to argue the merits of an appeal.

It will probably be months before the high court releases its decision. The judges can only order a new trial, not find him innocent of the April 22, 2015, shooting death of 18-year-old William Chapman II.

If Rankin — who was released from prison in November — were tried again and convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the jury could recommend he receive up to 10 years in prison.

The Supreme Court rarely takes up criminal appeals, but announced in October it would review Rankin’s case after a hearing involving three justices.

According to an order granting the hearing, at least two of the three 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.

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

The high court took up only 23 criminal appeals in 2017, according to the most recent statistics available from the court. It refused 708.

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

According to testimony during his 2016 trial, Rankin was investigating a shoplifting report 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.

No charges were filed in the Denyakin shooting, and Rankin won a related civil trial.

When Rankin originally appealed his conviction, Broccoletti and fellow defense attorney Nicole Belote attacked the verdict on several grounds. Appellate judges, however, have repeatedly determined Circuit Judge Johnny Morrison was within his rights to rule as he did.

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