Autopsy indicates Virginia officer shot unarmed teen William Chapman from a distance
An unarmed black 18-year-old was fatally shot in the face by a police officer from several feet away during their confrontation outside a supermarket in Virginia earlier this year, the findings of his autopsy indicate.
The typical signs of a close- or body-contact shooting were not found around the bullet wounds William Chapman sustained in the head and chest when he was killed by Officer Stephen Rankin in the parking lot of a Walmart in Portsmouth on 22 April.
“There is no evidence of close-range fire to visual inspection,” wrote Wendy Gunther, an assistant chief medical examiner for Virginia. Gunther said a definitive ruling would be made by the state’s department of forensic sciences.
A copy of Gunther’s report was obtained by the Guardian from a source who was not authorised to release it to the media, along with a seas parate toxicology report from state forensic investigators that said Chapman’s blood showed no traces of alcohol or drugs.
Rankin and Chapman engaged in a physical struggle after Rankin tried to arrest the 18-year-old on suspicion of shoplifting from the Walmart, according to police. Witnesses said Chapman broke free and then stepped back towards the officer aggressively before being shot twice. A decision on whether Rankin will be prosecuted is expected to be made by authorities in the coming days.
An attorney for Chapman’s family, who said he was preparing a civil lawsuit against Rankin even before state prosecutors make their decision, said the physical evidence suggested Chapman had not been near enough to Rankin to pose a threat.
“If an unarmed person is not in close proximity to the police officer, not in his so-called ‘wingspan’, then to say the officer shooting and killing that person is pretty excessive may be the greatest understatement of the year,” said attorney Jon Michael Babineau.
Gunther’s report said “no fouling or stippling” – the sooty residue and speckled gunpowder burns typically left by a close- or intermediate-range gunshot – were found on the skin around either of Chapman’s wounds, nor on the clothing where the shot to his chest entered.
Dr Judy Melinek , a prominent California-based forensic pathologist who frequently testifies as an expert witness, states in her guide to gunshot wounds that a lack of both stippling and fouling is typically associated with a “distant” gunshot from more than 30 inches away.
Dr David Fowler , the chief medical examiner for neighbouring Maryland, said in a brief telephone interview on Friday: “These are fairly small particles, and while they may be coming out at the same speed as the bullet, they have very little mass and an odd shape, so they lose velocity very rapidly.”
Fowler added: “Typically the fragments of unburnt gunpowder and soot travel out somewhere in the region up to 12in for a handgun, maximum, maybe 18in for a very powerful handgun.”
The Virginia autopsy was carried out the day after Chapman’s death. The report also said Chapman’s hands were cuffed behind his back. Babineau, the attorney for Chapman’s family, said scuff-like abrasions on the 18-year-old’s face and chest indicated he was rolled on to his front, cuffed, then rolled back again, after being fatally shot. Chapman was 5ft 8in tall and weighed about 185lbs.
Police and store managers still have not said if Chapman was found to have stolen anything from Walmart. The autopsy report lists clothes and shoes as his only personal effects, including a pair of trousers with the pockets turned inside out.
His family said he frequently browsed the store. Babineau said that through his own inquiries and interviews with witnesses, he had found no indication Chapman was carrying stolen merchandise, and that he appeared to have turned out the pockets to show they were empty.
This may be answered conclusively by surveillance footage recorded inside the store that was collected by investigators. The shooting itself, which took place just inside the perimeter of the large parking lot, close to the street, is understood not to have been captured on camera.
An inquiry into the shooting has been completed by Virginia state police and passed to Stephanie Morales , the Virginia commonwealth’s attorney for Portsmouth. The prosecutor also commissioned “additional investigative work” and tests by the state department of forensic science, according to Tamara Shewmake, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor.
The spokeswoman said earlier this week that following a delay, Morales expected to have received all the forensic files by Friday 21 August.
“Once all findings have been turned over to the commonwealth’s attorney, there will be a review and final prosecutorial determination,” Shewmake said.
Sources familiar with the inquiry said the week-long delay was due to Morales commissioning an advanced type of forensic analysis that had never before been completed by Virginia state officials.
The sources said Morales, who is 31 and newly elected earlier this year, had no intention of passing the case to an outside jurisdiction or special prosecutor, and that she had indicated she would present the case to a grand jury within Portsmouth, which is an independent city, if she decided to prosecute Rankin.
Portsmouth police and Virginia state police still decline to confirm Rankin was the officer who shot Chapman. His identity was confirmed to the Guardian by Sean McGowan, the executive director of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association , Rankin’s union.
Once Rankin’s name was published, McGowan denied he had confirmed it, then suggested he had not been authorised to confirm it, then said he would never again speak to a reporter from the newspaper. McGowan has refused to identify Rankin’s attorney or an alternative representative.
Rankin, 36, is a veteran of the US navy who earned a grey belt in the the Marine Corps martial arts programme , which requires the ability to “stop an aggressor’s attack” with hand-to-hand combat.
The officer was placed on administrative leave after shooting Chapman. In April 2011 he fatally shot Kirill Denyakin , a Kazakh cook, less than three miles from the site of Chapman’s death. Denyakin was shot 11 times by Rankin, who was responding to a 911 call about the 26-year-old aggressively banging at the door of a building where he was staying.
Rankin said he shot Denyakin because the cook, who was drunk, charged at him while reaching into the waistband of his jeans. The officer said he feared Denyakin would pull out a weapon. No weapon was found.
A grand jury declined to indict Rankin on criminal charges and a jury in a $22m civil lawsuit brought by Denyakin’s family found in Rankin’s favour.
Among 250 posts defending himself on a local newspaper website, Rankin wrote: “22 mil wont buy your boy back,” adding that most Americans could not hope to earn that in an entire career, “let alone a habitual drunk working as a hotel cook”.
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