By Dennis Edwards
New Journal and Guide
Over the decades I’ve covered defense attorneys all over the country as they executed clever, effective and at times ingenious strategies to get their clients acquitted. Many Counselors at Law creatively stay within and sometimes stretch the boundaries of reason or appropriate decorum. Most confine their arguments to the bench or jury with an eye toward the court of public opinion. All tend to respect the Grand Jury process. The really good ones depend on some fact or theory that gets to innocence or reasonable doubt. Seldom do attorneys resort to sending abject signals to a potential Grand Jury before it’s convened or presented a case.
Imagine my journalistic amazement while reading what appeared to be a public and poorly disguised attempt to influence the grand jury process in a story published by the Virginian Pilot on August 28, 2015. Nicole Belote, an Attorney for Portsmouth Police Officer Stephen D. Rankin, appears to use the story to urge and instruct potential grand jurors on how to let her client walk. Officer Rankin is alleged to have fatally shot William Chapman II in the back while handcuffed on April 22 of this year.
The email is cleverly constructed in such a way as to encourage potential jurors to “diligently enquire” about “the facts” and that if they do so “they will agree to not return a true bill.” Fascinating strategy when you consider there’s a total absence of context on how the defense’s view of the “facts” doesn’t match the Prosecutor’s version. The carefully constructed missive had the feel of an act of desperation. An act perhaps steeped in a pre-conceived attitude that has nothing to do with a real or proposed defense.
The signals are undeniably clear. With a wink and a nod the defense leaves the impression it’s trying to tell the Grand Jury that relevant and likely indisputable facts aren’t necessarily facts. This approach undermines the integrity of the system without offering a clear explanation for the actions of Officer Rankin. In essence, It is a not so clever approach that needs to be questioned journalistically.
Of course the defense doesn’t have to show its hand until trial. But given Rankin’s history of fatally shooting another unarmed African-American man back in 2011 and a controversial Facebook posting (featuring a lynching) the approach raises red flags over the landscape of a possible twisted and deadly since of privilege.
Defense counsel’s “Strong Belief” is less a belief and more a clarion call to stop the case before it gets to trial. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate miscarriage of justice? Wouldn’t it also vividly illustrate an inclination to manipulate the system from deep within?
This is where the sinister nature of the strategy strikes at the heart of judicial integrity. If the defense has contradictory evidence why not present it? If there is compelling information supporting their position why not just say so? But to rely on what looks like an emailed wink and nod to undermine the indictment process just doesn’t look good. Does it?
At its core there is something inherently arrogant and dismissive about this strategy. It really has the feel of an attempt to tap into aggressive anti-government, anti-system anger seething in some quarters of our community. It looks like an encouragement to Gerrymander the system toward some kind of advantage for those who believe fear alone is a reason to kill.
In one sense, this tactic flirts with a level of brilliance in deception. But at what price to the soul of our Commonwealth? Are we to simply abandon the pursuit of accountability because someone says in effect don’t trust these facts as presented because they don’t represent our best interest? The obvious attempt to bate anyone in the jury pool into becoming a zealot or crusader is disturbing at best and sinister at worst.
There is never a time in American Juris Prudence when justice isn’t legally for all. Never a time when Police Officers or anyone else are exempt from accountability simply because evidence shows some may kill out of fear or a sense of entitlement. Not today, not this time and not in any situation.
It’s my hope that all involved in the legal system will be determined to ignore this kind of manipulation and remain committed to justice for any and everyone.