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Murderer gets life sentence; jurors decide against seeking death penalty

By Frank DeLoache

Salisbury Post

Twelve jurors needed only about 30 minutes Friday to decide that John Rankin did not deserve to die for his part in the murder of his friend, Mark Ritchie.

Instead, Rankin will spend the rest of his life in state prison.

After hearing the sentence, Elaine Howle, the victim’s mother, said she felt “no different.”

“He’s still gone,” she said, speaking of her only child.

Just minutes earlier, while jurors were still deliberating, Rankin’s younger brother, James Harris, thanked Howle and other members of Ritchie’s family for not trying to convince the jury to sentence Rankin to death.

“Mark’s mother and the whole family showed a lot of compassion,” said Harris, who took leave from the U.S. Navy to be with his mother during the trial. “They could have stood up and insisted that the jury give the death penalty.

“I thanked her.”

On Thursday, the jurors found Rankin guilty of first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Their job Friday was deciding on death or life in prison without parole.

Ritchie was stabbed to death in his Kannapolis home and a number of guns were stolen from his extensive collection. Testimony during the trial showed that Rankin gave several guns to two other people to pawn without asking for any money.

But Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly told jurors earlier Friday morning that Rankin had plenty of time between the day of the robbery and his arrest to sell the other guns.

Consequently, the prosecutor said the jurors should consider one aggravated circumstance that, under state law, would justify a death sentence — that Ritchie was murdered for profit.

State law sets out 11 “aggravating circumstances,” including “pecuniary gain,” that can justify the death sentence.

Rankin’s attorneys, however, argued that the evidence didn’t prove Ritchie was murdered for money.

James Randolph, one of Rankin’s defense attorneys, pointed out that the person or people who murdered Ritchie left behind Ritchie’s billfold with a $100 bill and $1,000 in cash in a safe.

Marshal Bickett, Rankin’s other attorney, proposed another scenario to the jurors. He said Rankin and Ritchie, who were friends from their days at South Rowan High School and had hunted together, might have argued after smoking marijuana. Ritchie might have called Rankin a name, and Rankin stabbed his friend to death, Bickett said, and then decided to take his guns as an afterthought.

Rankin remained silent throughout the trial, including his sentencing Friday, and the jury had no testimony about exactly what happened that day at Ritchie’s house.

The evidence is also complicated by the role of Rankin’s son, Cedric Hawkins, who had been charged as an accomplice after the murder.

During the trial, Superior Court Judge Michael Beale took the unusual step of issuing a warrant from the bench, increasing the severity of the charges against Hawkins to first-degree murder and robbery.

In the end, Bickett and Randolph told the jurors the death penalty wasn’t the right sentence for all first-degree murders.

“John Rankin is going to die in prison,” Randolph said. “You will give him a slow death or a quick death.

“The death penalty is reserved for the worst possible people in society … and John Rankin does not fit that.”

The death penalty should be used against “the worst of the worst,” Bickett added, “the Gacys and the serial killers.”

The defense attorneys asked jurors to consider a number of mitigating factors that, they said, should argue against the death penalty.

Rankin had no previous history of violence and only one previous criminal conviction — for drug trafficking in 1990.

As two of their last witnesses for Rankin, the defense team called Dr. Alan King, who was Rankin’s principal in middle school, and Larry Deal, a retired educator who coached Rankin for at least two years.

King, now an assistant superintendent for the Rowan-Salisbury School System, remembers Rankin well and described him as “a real asset to our classes and our program.”

Rankin towered over most of his classmates, King testified, but didn’t use his size to intimidate others.

“Quite the opposite,” King said. “He offered the other kids encouragement” and always showed adults respect.

Deal described Rankin as “a very helping person.”

Rankin never graduated from high school — he earned his GED — and King’s last memory of him came when King was principal at South Rowan High School.

Rankin’s son, Cedric, brought his father to meet King again at an open house sponsored by the school.

“We hugged and were glad to see one another,” King said.

King estimated that meeting occurred five or six years ago, and he had not seen Rankin again until the trial.

In weighing all the factors before them, Kenerly, the prosecutor, asked the jurors to remember conversations Rankin had after Ritchie’s murder and before he was arrested.

“Never in one instance did he express one word of regret about his death,” Kenerly said, even though they were friends since high school.

“Since he didn’t admit his guilt (in a conversation with an acquaintance), I didn’t expect him to apologize,” Kenerly said. “But I would expect him to say he regrets that Mark Ritchie was dead.”

Instead, Kenerly said Rankin uttered “not one single word that he cared whether Mark Ritchie was alive or dead.”

After the trial adjourned Friday, Rankin’s brother, James Harris, said, “I know he feels bad about Mark’s death, and he feels bad for the family.”

Bickett may have touched on the jury’s leanings when he advised them, “John Rankin will never step foot out of prison after today … He won’t be there when his mom dies … He won’t see his four children outside of prison …

“That is a punishment, and that is punishment enough in this case.”

Contact Frank DeLoache at 704-797-4245 or fdeloache@salisburypost.com.

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