PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP)–A jury convicted a White former police officer of voluntary manslaughter on Thursday in the shooting death of an unarmed Black man who had been accused of shoplifting.
Former police officer Stephen Rankin (left) answers questions from the prosecution during the penalty phase of the his trial Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, in Portsmouth, Va. A jury convicted Rankin of voluntary manslaughter on Thursday in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, William Chapman (right) who had been accused of shoplifting. (The Virginian-Pilot via AP and Courtesy Photo)
Stephen Rankin, who was fired from the Portsmouth police force after being indicted, now faces one to 10 years in prison. The sentencing phase of his trial began immediately.
Rankin, 36, shot William Chapman in the face and chest outside a Wal-Mart store last year after a security guard accused the 18-year-old of shoplifting. No video recorded the actual killing, and testimony conflicted on the details.
Prosecutors said Chapman had his hands up and the officer could have used non-deadly force. But the defense said Rankin had to shoot after trying to stun the young man, because Chapman became enraged and knocked the officer’s stun gun to the ground.
Rankin had already killed another unarmed suspect, four years earlier, and many in Portsmouth, a mostly Black city of 100,000, saw his trial as a chance for accountability as police shootings continue around the country.
But his lawyers said this case had nothing to do with deadly uses of force against other Black men.
“I think this is a terrible tragedy I wish it had never happened. I wish none of it had ever occurred,” Rankin testified after being found guilty.
“I can’t begin to fathom how much pain that family is going through. I wish I could have done more to keep him alive,” he added.
Chapman’s second cousin, Earl Lewis, also took the stand, to discuss the impact of his death, speaking through tears about how the family struggled to find money to bury him.
The jurors consisting of eight Black and four White deliberated for nearly two days. They did not convict on the first-degree murder charge prosecutors sought, but criminal charges are rare in police-involved shootings, and convictions are even more uncommon.
Experts say on-duty officers kill about 1,000 suspects a year in the United States, but only 74 have been charged since 2005. A third of these were convicted, a third were not and the other cases are pending.
Persuading jurors to convict officers is always difficult because people tend to give police the benefit of the doubt, said Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “Juries are very reluctant to convict an officer because they all recognize that policing is difficult and violent.”
Some witnesses backed Rankin’s recollection. Paul Akey, a construction worker who was nearby, said Chapman “went after the officer with throwing fists, and it looked like he knocked a Taser out of the officer’s hands.”
Rankin testified that he calmly approached Chapman to discuss the shoplifting accusation and was preparing to handcuff him when the teen refused to comply with his orders and a struggle ensued. He said he used his stun gun on him, but Chapman knocked it away. Both men then faced each other from a short distance.
That’s when he drew his pistol, Rankin said, and repeatedly commanded Chapman to “get on the ground.” Instead, he said Chapman screamed “shoot me” several times before charging at him from about six feet away. He said experienced “tunnel vision” at that point, and fearing for his life, fired twice to stop him.
“I had no reason to think he was going to stop attacking me,” said Rankin. “I was scared.”
But Gregory Provo, the Wal-Mart security guard who reported the shoplifting allegation, testified that Chapman never charged at the officer. He said Chapman raised both hands, boxing-style, and said “Are you going to f—ing shoot me?” before Rankin fired from about five yards away.
Prosecutor Stephanie Morales told the jury that Rankin “brought a gun into what is at worst a fist fight.”
But defense attorney James Broccoletti said shooting was his only choice after “everything he tried to do didn’t work.”
Prosecutors failed to persuade the judge to allow Rankin’s ex-wife to testify that he had fantasized about shooting people on the job. In his first on-duty killing, he was cleared of wrongdoing after firing 11 times at a white burglary suspect. He said that man charged at him while reaching into his waistband with his hands.
The judge also refused to allow testimony about Chapman’s criminal record.