Saturday 22 October 2016

Former policeman convicted over shooting of black shoplifting suspect

Published 04/08/2016 | 21:36

Criminal charges are rare in police-involved shootings in the US and convictions are even more uncommon
Criminal charges are rare in police-involved shootings in the US and convictions are even more uncommon

A white former police officer has been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed black man accused of shoplifting in Virginia.

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Portsmouth officer Stephen Rankin, who was fired as he awaited trial, shot 18-year-old William Chapman in the face and chest outside a Wal-Mart store last year after a security guard accused the teen of shoplifting.

No video recorded the killing and testimony conflicted on the details.

The jury did not convict on the first-degree murder charge prosecutors sought.

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 UniStates but only 74 have been charged since 2005. Of those, a third were convicted, a third were not and the other cases are pending.

Prosecutors said the officer could have used non-deadly force, noting that every witness but Rankin testified Chapman had his hands up.

The defence said Rankin had to shoot after a stun gun failed to stop the teenager.

The jurors - eight black and four white - began deliberating on Tuesday in the mostly black city of 100,000.

Many in Portsmouth saw the trial as a chance for accountability amid continuing reports about police-involved shootings.

Rankin, who was fired after his murder indictment, had already killed another unarmed suspect four years earlier.

His lawyers said this case had nothing to do with deadly uses of force against other black men.

Persuading a jury to convict in these cases 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 recognise that policing is difficult and violent," he said.

Rankin said 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 and both men then faced each other from a short distance.

Rankin said he then drew his pistol and repeatedly commanded Chapman to "get on the ground".

Instead, he said Chapman screamed "shoot me" several times before charging at him from about 6ft away. He said he 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, 36. "I was scared."

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".

Gregory Provo, the Wal-Mart security guard who reported the shoplifting allegation, testified Chapman never charged at the officer.

He said Chapman raised both hands, boxing-style, and said "Are you going to shoot me?" before Rankin fired from about five yards away.

Prosecutor Stephanie Morales argued Rankin chose to shoot when he could have used non-lethal force.

"He brought a gun into what is at worst a fist fight," she told the jury.

Defence lawyer 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 fantasised 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 own criminal record.


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