Officer Stephen D. Rankin says a man he thought was a burglar put his right hand deep into his pants just before charging at him in April, prompting the officer to open fire.
Lawyers for Kirill Denyakin's estate argue that's impossible because one of the 11 bullets that hit Denyakin grazed the side of his right wrist, but there was no hole in his jeans.
The position of Denyakin's right hand and pants is central in newly filed court papers as attorneys try to persuade a federal judge to see their side in a $22 million excessive force lawsuit against Rankin.
Rankin shot Denyakin on April 23 outside an apartment building at 454 Green St. after responding to an emergency burglary call. He found Denyakin banging on the glass door of the building with both hands, and the officer pointed his gun at him. Rankin said Denyakin did not obey commands to stop and put his hands where Rankin could see them, instead charging with his hand in his pants, prompting Rankin to use lethal force to defend himself. The 32-year-old officer had been on the police force for about three years.
Denyakin, 26, was unarmed; the shooting sparked outrage in Olde Towne and in Denyakin's native Kazakhstan.
Rankin's attorneys have asked U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the circumstances justified deadly force. But the plaintiff's lawyers say forensic evidence does not match Rankin's statements.
In a handwritten document Rankin made shortly after the shooting, he wrote, "His hand was still in his pants during the charge at me. And I believe it was when he went down."
Another officer arrived, called to Rankin, and said "cuff him." Rankin handcuffed Denyakin's hands behind his back and rolled him into a position to help him breathe; he wrote that he felt a pulse then heard a sound he described as a "death rattle."
In a deposition on Nov. 22, Rankin repeated his statement, saying he was about 35 feet away from Denyakin when he challenged him.
"He reached his right hand into his waistband past his wrist and began digging," Rankin said in the deposition. "He was continually digging for an object inside his waistband."
When asked where Denyakin's jeans were fastened, Rankin replied, "around the waist."
Rankin called on his radio for help, turned on the light on his firearm and gave more commands. He said Denyakin came at him "at a full run."
The deposition includes this exchange between plaintiff's attorney C. Stewart Gill Jr. and Rankin:
Q: Why aren't there any holes in Mr. Denyakin's pants?
A: I don't know.
Q: You don't have an explanation for that?
A: I don't have an explanation for that.
Q: Were you aware that there were no holes in Mr. Denyakin's pants, his jeans?
A: It had been brought to my attention recently.
The plaintiff's lawyers argued there "is substantial and compelling forensic evidence that Denyakin did not thrust his right hand into his pants as described by Rankin. Likewise, there is credible evidence that Denyakin never charged at Rankin."
Photos of Denyakin at the scene after he died show his jeans down around his thighs. His blood alcohol content was 0.28. Denyakin was living with friends in an apartment in the building, but they had brought him outside that evening because he was intoxicated and had upset his friend's wife. A resident of the building called 911 after Denyakin began banging loudly on the glass door to the foyer.
Richard J. Cromwell, an attorney for Rankin's defense, filed a response Thursday.
"Plaintiff also argues that the position of Denyakin's jeans on his body after the shooting somehow supports the argument that Denyakin did not thrust his hand inside his pants before he started to charge at Officer Rankin. To the contrary, the position of Denyakin's jeans after the shooting most likely explains why he stuck his hand inside his pants in the first place - the jeans were missing the top button, they were unzipped, and he needed to hold them up to run - all facts that were obviously unknown to Officer Rankin in the seconds before the shooting."
Cromwell cited a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling stating that the Constitution "simply does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm."
Commonwealth's Attorney Earle C. Mobley has not yet decided whether to charge Rankin with any crime; he has reviewed an investigation by Virginia State Police.
The Portsmouth Police Department has scrutinized postings Rankin made on his Facebook page under the name "Steve Danger Rankin," some of which appeared militaristic.
In his deposition, Rankin said he made a Facebook comment before the shooting about buying a case of ammunition at a gun show and posted, "I got a whole bucket of bullets to dump into the Comies."
He said in the deposition: "It was just a stupid joke.... If my friends were to read it and understand my sense of humor, which my friends do, they would find it funny."
He later deleted his Facebook page. Rankin testified in his deposition that he did not know Denyakin and had never heard of him.
Rankin also said he posted a number of comments on PilotOnline under the screen name "yourealythinkthat" after his girlfriend became upset over comments on stories about the shooting. In the comments, he disputed other commenters who were critical of his actions.
Rankin has been working desk duty; police departments generally place officers on administrative duty while a shooting is investigated.
Patrick Wilson, 757-222-3893, email@example.com