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Virginia Officer Found Guilty of Manslaughter in Shooting of Unarmed Black Teen, Jury Recommends Shorter Sentence

Former officer Stephen Rankin, who whas charged with manslaughter for the shooting death of William Chapman. Photo courtesy of NBC Washington

Former officer Stephen Rankin was charged with manslaughter for the shooting death of William Chapman. Photo courtesy of NBC Washington

A white Virginia police officer was found guilty of manslaughter Thursday in the shooting death of an unarmed Black teen suspected of shoplifting.

According to the Huffington Post, Officer Stephen Rankin was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of 18-year-old William Chapman in April of last year. It was the second time Rankin had killed an unarmed individual while on duty. Though he’s looking at up to 10 years behind bars, the jury is recommending just 2 1/2 years.

The ill-fated encounter between Rankin and Chapman occurred on the morning of April 22, 2015, when the Portsmouth officer tried to arrest the teen for reportedly shoplifting items from a Walmart superstore. Authorities said Rankin fired the fatal shot only after Chapman “aggressively” took a step toward the officer. There was no video evidence of the incident, and many details remain disputed.

For instance, many of the witnesses who testified in the case said Chapman had his hands in the air when the officer approached him, Huffington Post reports. However, Rankin argued that he tried to subdue the teen with a stun gun before shooting, but Chapman knocked it to the ground and charged toward him. Other eyewitnesses backed his account as well.

“He didn’t have a choice. He didn’t have an option,” said Rankin’s lead attorney, James Broccoletti. “He didn’t have anything else left to do. It’s easy for us to ‘Monday morning quarterback.’ It’s easy for us to look back with 20/20 hindsight and say ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda.’ ”

According to Atlanta Black Star, the Portsmouth officer was fired and charged with first-degree murder back in September 2015. However, the jury declined to indict Rankin on the murder charge after a judge reportedly told them they could convict him on a lesser charge.

The Guardian reports that the jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about 13 hours after hearing four days of thorough testimony from witnesses to the shooting, a series of experts and Rankin himself. Per Virginia ABC affiliate 13NewsNow, the jury had the following charges to consider: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and use of a firearm in commission of a felony. They came back with a guilty verdict for manslaughter, but recommended just 2 1/2 years of jail time.

Despite the indictment, attorney Stephanie Morales argued that Chapman should have “lived to face prosecution” for reportedly resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.

“The law does not say that because you do not comply you have to die,” Morales said in her closing statement Tuesday. “The defendant brought a gun to what at worst was a fist fight.”

Chapman’s death is taking a heavy toll on his family, according to the teen’s cousin, Earl Lewis.

“He [Rankin] shot him in the head, and it broke my heart,” Lewis said. “He shot him in the chest, and it broke my heart.”

Lewis also told jurors Chapman was working on earning his high school diploma and had plans to join the military.

According to The Guardian, Rankin took the stand twice during the hearing to speak in his own defense. When asked if he had anything to say to the late teen’s family, he replied, “I think this is a terrible tragedy and I wish it had never happened. I can’t begin to fathom how much pain that family is going through after losing a loved one.”

Cases in which officers are criminally charged and indicted are few and far between, so Thursday’s guilty verdict comes as a sweet victory for Chapman’s family. A similar case in Florida turned out very differently, as a sheriff’s deputy was able to wiggle his way out of a manslaughter charge by citing the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. A judge dismissed the charges against sheriff’s deputy Peter Peraza, who was charged with killing unarmed Black man Jermaine McBean in 2013. The Stand Your Ground statute is typically used as a civilian defense, not by police officers.

According to research by associate professor of criminology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, only 41 officers in the U.S. were charged with either murder or manslaughter in connection with on-duty shootings over a seven-year span. That number becomes even more minuscule when compared to the nearly 1,000 fatal shootings that occur each year.

Rankin will be formally sentenced by a judge later this month, The Guardian reports.

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