Virginia Police Officer Convicted in Shooting Death of Black Teenager

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Protestors in Portsmouth, Virginia.Photo: Bill Tiernan

A police officer has been convicted in the shooting death of a black teenager last spring.

A jury in Portsmouth, Virginia, found Stephen Rankin guilty of voluntary manslaughter yesterday and recommended that he serve two-and-a-half years in prison.

In April of last year, Rankin shot 19-year-old William Chapman in the face and chest outside of a Walmart where he had been stopped by a security guard for shoplifting.

The details of what happened have proved extraordinarily hard to sort out; in the end, it took the jury almost two days of deliberation before they could agree on a verdict. No tape of the encounter exists and witness testimony was often contradictory, though all witnesses agreed that Chapman was unarmed when Rankin shot him.

Defense attorneys for Rankin claimed that Chapman resisted when the officer tried to handcuff him and physically attacked Rankin, knocking his stun gun out of his hand and yelling “shoot me” repeatedly.

Some of the testimony backed up Rankin’s version of events, but the security guard who was on-hand, and who had actually called the police, said that Chapman never charged the officer and remained still, with his hands up in a defensive position, and asked, “Are you going to [expletive] shoot me?”

In the end, Rankin did shoot him twice, from five yards away, killing him.

This was not the first time that Rankin had killed someone. Four years ago, he also shot and killed an unarmed suspect but was kept on active duty; it was only after the second fatal shooting that he was removed from the force.

While police kill 1,000 people on average every year, officers are very rarely held legally accountable; according to CBS News, only 74 have been charged with any crime in the last 11 years — and only a third have been convicted.

In the predominantly black town of Portsmouth, and nationwide, the case was seen as a referendum on police accountability. Rankin was facing up to ten years in prison; when he is formally sentenced on October 12, the judge can give him less than the two-and-a-half years recommended by the jury, but not more.