NORFOLK, Va. - Attorneys for former Portsmouth police officer Stephen Rankin made their case to a panel of appeals court judges for why they believe he deserves a new trial due to errors in the original one.
Rankin's attorneys presented two arguments about the trial during the hearing in Norfolk on Tuesday afternoon. Rankin was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2016 and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, but his attorneys are appealing his conviction. Rankin was not present at the hearing.
The appeal comes at a risk. If the judges rule in his favor, if there's a new trial, and he's found guilty again, he could face a longer sentence, but his attorneys say he's aware of the risk. "He's not guilty," said James Broccoletti, one of Rankin's attorneys. "He didn't commit any crime and he wants the record to be clear."
In one argument during the hearing, the attorneys said an expert witness should've been allowed to testify about officers' use of force policies. "Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Morales] tried to challenge the credibility of Mr. Rankin to show that he's a hot head," said Broccoletti. "The expert would've counteracted that and presented a different side to the jury."
That issue was critical during Rankin's testimony during the trial. Morales grilled him about why he used his gun and not another method. The shooting happened when Rankin was investigating the report of shoplifting in April 2015. In the parking lot of a Walmart, he encountered William Chapman and there was a confrontation, ending with Rankin shooting and killing Chapman. Rankin maintains he acted in self-defense.
The Attorney General's Office took over arguing against Rankin's team during Tuesday's hearing. They said the witness wasn't needed and the judge didn't make a mistake.
The other issue was about whether Judge Johnny Morrison should've declared a mistrial when it was revealed a Chapman family supporter encountered a juror in the hallway of the courthouse. The interaction was caught on surveillance camera. Rankin's attorneys said the female supporter was trying to influence the juror. "They don't have to come out and say anything," Brocoletti said. "They said it by their presence."
In an interview with reporters, Morales said nothing improper happened. "There was no indication [they were talking about] the case," she said. "I don't believe you can infer actions that have taken place based on what you can see. They did not verbalize any communication about the case." During the hearing, the Attorney General's side said the two knew each other.
The attorneys said they expect the judges to announce a decision in a few months. For now the families connected to the case are left in limbo. "I think [the hearing] was a waste of our time," said Earl Lewis, the Chapman family spokesman. "I think it was a waste of tax payers' money."
Rankin's wife, Dawn, also attended the hearing. "I'm hopeful," she said. "It'll be a couple of months and we'll have a decision and we'll go on from there."
A single appeals court judge initially denied Rankin's appeal, but a panel of three judges allowed the two points to move forward after Rankin's attorneys continued their challenge. If Rankin loses this appeal, he can challenge his conviction further to the Supreme Court.
Last week, Judge Morrison ruled Rankin has to stay behind bars while the appeals process continues.