Mimesis Law
22 October 2021

Stephen Rankin’s Cop Buddies, Stealing the Prosecution’s Thunder

Feb. 17, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Prosecutors normally have no problem with a courtroom packed full of uniformed officers, but that’s because they usually aren’t there for the defendant. Things are different when it’s a cop on trial:

Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales wants to bar uniformed police officers from watching the trial of a former Portsmouth officer charged with murder.

The reason: She fears the attendance of a large number of officers – perhaps 25 or more – in support of Stephen Rankin would prejudice the jury against the government.

The prosecutor’s hypocrisy is certainly notable. She’s no doubt fine with her cop witnesses taking the stand while in uniform, perhaps armed as well. She’s probably even fine with a uniformed case agent sitting at counsel’s table. There’s a certain authority that comes with a uniform, and she’s on the side of authority. Her ability to show that is probably something she took for granted up to now. Now that someone else gets the advantage, though, she’s very upset about it:

“The stifling presence of so many law enforcement officers will have a chilling effect on the jury’s ability to deliberate with open minds,” Morales wrote last week in a motion. She went on to say that a juror could be “reasonably imposed upon” to change his or her verdict from guilty to not guilty in the face of so many police officers.

James Broccoletti, one of Rankin’s defense attorneys, said he disagrees with the request but had no plans to file a motion in response.

“My thoughts are that it is a public trial, and the public has a right to attend,” he said. “These are the same officers that the Commonwealth’s Attorney calls to the witness stand everyday to support their case. I doubt the motion would have been filed if an officer was the decedent.”

The problem with her position in general, and also with the specific concerns she’s voiced, is that they’re hard to take seriously coming from a prosecutor. She’s probably right that a bunch of cops supporting the defendant would probably prejudice the jury against the government, but that’s the point. They’re intimidating. People are going to think to themselves that if a couple dozen cops disagree with the case, it might be without merit. It’s just like how people in every case ever tend to think to themselves that if cops decided to investigate and then forwarded the case for charging that the defendant is probably guilty. She wasn’t bothered by that before because it always worked in her favor.

Similarly, the chilling effect on the jury she notes, something that might even intimidate jurors into changing their verdict, is also a real concern. Her problem is that her complaining about it isn’t indicative of her really thinking it’s a problem, but her wanting to win and being frustrated it isn’t going to be easy now that she’s prosecuting a cop. She’s really just mad that someone else gets that ace in the pocket, and the defense lawyer obviously gets that. Any time a cop is a victim, other cops show up in droves. Whether it’s at trial or at sentencing, they make their position known, and they do it very visibly. It can be quite effective. It’s working against Morales this time.

The other curious part of the situation is the fact that officers are still standing behind  Stephen Rankin. Considering the facts of the case, however, it makes sense that they might find the situation unsettling:

At least 11 people witnessed part of the incident that ended in Chapman’s death. According to statements turned over last year to the defense and filed with the court clerk’s office, several witnesses indicated that Chapman was combative with Rankin before the shooting.

No one said Chapman was armed or had anything in his hands, but three witnesses said Rankin had no choice but to shoot Chapman.

Part of the altercation between Rankin and Chapman was captured on video by a camera attached to Rankin’s Taser. Attorneys have said, however, that there is a 15-second gap in the video that includes the actual shooting.

It remains unclear what caused the gap, but at least one witness told police it appeared Chapman knocked Rankin’s Taser out of his hand before the shooting.

It doesn’t sound like a slam dunk for the prosecution. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that Rankin got charged in the first place. After all, some people thought he was justified, one person thought the victim knocked the Taser out of Rankin’s hand beforehand, and the shooting itself wasn’t captured on video. Rankin’s past must have had something to do with him being charged:

In 2011, Rankin fatally shot another unarmed man while responding to a burglary call on Green Street in Olde Towne.

Rankin said Kirill Denyakin charged at him and refused to take his hand out of his pants. Denyakin was struck 11 times, according to the autopsy.

A grand jury cleared Rankin of wrongdoing in that shooting. Denyakin’s family filed a civil suit in federal court, but a jury ruled in favor of the officer.

A lot of cops lead long and successful careers without ever shooting anyone, let alone killing anyone. Rankin, on the other hand, hasn’t just killed two people, but two unarmed people. That seems like a big problem, and Rankin having that background probably puts other local cops in an awkward situation where they either look like blind supporters of a bad egg by getting behind him or have to just sit by idly as a prosecutor goes after one of their own in a case with weak facts. Plenty chose the former, it seems, but it probably wasn’t the easiest decision.

On top of the amusing hypocrisy of a prosecutor suddenly worrying about the powerful draw of uniformed officers obviously picking a side in a case, Morales isn’t doing herself any favors with her silly alternative proposal either:

She requested only that Circuit Court Judge Johnny Morrison bar uniformed law enforcement officers from sitting in the courtroom gallery during trial. In the alternative, Morales asked the judge to limit the number of uniformed officers to 10 and prevent them from sitting in groups of four or more.

While she’s at it, maybe she should ask the court to hire a variety of actors who appear to have just the right age, race, and socioeconomic status to avoid making it look like the majority of people sitting in the gallery favor the defense. Her guess about that couldn’t be much more arbitrary than her suggestion that ten uniformed officers in the gallery scattered about in pockets of no greater than three somehow strikes just the right balance, after all. But then again, maybe she has access to some sort of study showing that jurors can’t possibly give a non-cop-supported party a fair shake when eleven uniformed officers, four of whom happen to be sitting next to each other in the same row, come to watch trial and express their support for one side over the other. I doubt it.

Morales’s request is funny to the extent the tables are turned and she doesn’t like it, but there’s also a dark side to it. The power of the uniform is undeniable, and the fact it takes that working against her for her to appreciate it is troubling. If she wins, hopefully the situation will result in officers in the jurisdiction also not being allowed to pack heat or wear uniforms while testifying for the government. If she loses, hopefully she’ll be a little more sensitive the next time she hears a defense attorney argue about the coercive power of armed men in uniform. Even if she’s only making an issue out of it now because she wants to win, at least she’s acknowledged it’s real.

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