Judge: Rankin case will not have an official gag order

WAVY News 10

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A Portsmouth judge has ruled that there will be no official “gag” order for the case of former police officer Stephen Rankin.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales filed a motion on Thursday requesting for a “gag” order to prevent attorneys from talking about the case.

Judge Johnny Morrison asked Morales for an example, “Your Honor Ms. Belote is one of the parties who gave an interview.”

Nicole Belote is Rankin’s attorney, and she was quick to defend herself, “I would disagree with Ms. Morales’ summary in this courtroom that there has been some ethical violation.”

What Morales accuses Belote of is done by attorneys every day in and out of court, and that is stating that their client is innocent.  What Morales said next seemed desperate in its reasoning. “There is case-law that specifically gets into what statements are prohibited and which statements are not and that includes statements of guilt or innocence of a particular party’s client,” she said.

Morales could be referring to this Belote statement on Sept. 4 that Rankin is not guilty of first degree murder because he was acting in self-defense when he shot Chapman, “Because of the fear he was in he no longer had his taser that would have been an alternative means of trying to control the situation. The taser was knocked away from him during the struggle prior to the shooting.”

Judge Morrison denied Morales’ request saying he has never told anyone not to talk and he’s not starting now. He also said attorneys know what their ethical responsibilities are and should follow them.

In court on Friday, Judge Johnny Morrison denied the motion. In his ruling, Morrison stated, “I’ve never ordered people not to talk, including lawyers. And I’m not beginning now. They know what their ethical responsibilities are.”

Lawyers from both sides chose not to speak following Friday’s motions hearing.

Rankin is accused of shooting and killing 18-year-old William Chapman outside of a Walmart in April. He is charged with first-degree murder in this case.

Photos: Portsmouth officer-involved shooting outside Walmart

Morrison also order for the taser and camera video to be returned to the Commonwealth once Arizona-based Taser International has completed its independent analysis, and they have 10 days to do it.

Belote sums up the taser video this way, “Judge this is potentially the most critical piece of evidence that we are dealing with…it can determine guilt or innocence.”

On Thursday, 10 On Your Side reported there was a 15-second gap in the video at the time of the Chapman shooting. Belote told the court, “some portion of the taser video is corrupt.”

We called the manufacturer Taser International and asked what could lead to 15 seconds of nothing. Apparently, if the taser and taser cam recorder become disconnected, “by dropping it or any other means, the camera will stop recording and power down,” Steve Tuttle of Taser International said via email.

Rankin’s attorneys expressed concerns on Friday that more analysis could damage what is left of the video.

Morales was aware of the gap and sent the taser and video to Taser International to find out about the missing 15 seconds.

But Judge Johnny Morrison overruled Morales and ordered the taser and video be returned to Virginia presumably to State Police who maintained the chain of custody so defense can examine the critical evidence.

Chapman’s family was in court Friday, and the family’s spokesman said Judge Morrison is doing a great job at keeping things honest and fair. “He has always been fair. Not only that, he gives very credible answers. His decisions are even with no signs of favoritism.”

Also in court, it was ruled that Rankin’s defense can visit the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to visually look at notes that police took from witnesses of the shooting.

It is also still unknown if Rankin’s April 2011 killing of Kirill Denyakin, a 26-year-old Kazakhstani cook will be admissible in the Chapman case. A grand jury declined to indict Rankin for the shooting. Then a jury in a $22 million civil lawsuit found in Rankin’s favor.

Morales wants it part of the case because it is a fact that it happened. Rankin’s attorneys have 10 days to respond to that. The trial for Stephen Rankin is set to begin in late February.


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