Rankin guilty on murder charge

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 3, 2009

By Shavonne Potts

Salisbury Post

Some members of the jury were visibly shaken, but they returned a guilty verdict in the trial of John F. Rankin on Thursday.

As each juror affirmed the decision in Rowan County Superior Court, some sobbed. Others wiped away tears as they sat down.

Rankin, 42, was found guilty of first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon.

He could receive the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.

Rankin was convicted of killing Kevin Mark Ritchie, 41, at Ritchie’s Kannapolis home on Aug. 16, 2004. Ritchie was stabbed several times. He’d been dead a few hours when his fiancee, Meloney McCorkle, found him lying in his kitchen at 911 Elm St.

The trial began a week ago, with numerous witnesses testifying about the character of the two men.

Ritchie and Rankin were high school friends and hunted together from time to time.

Jurors deliberated for nearly two hours. Visiting Superior Court Judge Michael Beale asked if they’d like a break, but they instead said they needed five more minutes. They then sent word they’d reached a decision.

Following an extended lunch break, the court allowed time for an evidentiary hearing to determine if aggravating circumstances existed that would justify a death penalty.

One of Rankin’s attorneys, Marshall Bickett, said there was no evidence that the robbery was for monetary gain.

“In theory, robbery is for pecuniary gain, but in this case there’s no evidence to show that,” he said.

Rowan District Attorney Bill Kenerly said investigators were not able to find out “whether the rest of the guns were sold or disposed of.”

Ritchie’s family said he collected about 30 to 40 hunting rifles and firearms.

Beale denied the arguments presented by Bickett.

Rankin’s mother, siblings and other family testified that he was a good father and son.

Phyllis Harris said she’d never known her son to be violent and that she raised him to be a “good son.”

James Harris said his brother was very loving and that their mother “raised us up properly.”

Kenerly asked Harris if his brother John ever allowed his children to participate in the use of illegal drugs.

Harris said he did not know.

John Hawkins, 21, said his stepfather, John Rankin, was the, “first daddy I ever knew.”

Hawkins said it wasn’t until he was 11 that he discovered Rankin was not his real father, but that didn’t destroy the bond and love they had.

He admitted he hadn’t seen his stepfather in the past couple of years.

Rankin’s aunt, Sheila Rankin-Steele,said her nephew had the ability to make the best out of the worst moments.

“He has a compassionate heart,” she said through tears.

Steele said although her nephew always wanted the last word, he was not a violent person and “never used his size to intimidate anyone.”

Victim’s family

Following the court proceedings, Ritchie’s relatives said they believed the verdict was fair.

His mother, Elaine Howle, said she thinks Rankin’s family “knew he did it.”

She also said, “I feel for his family. We feel their pain too, but it doesn’t lessen the fact that John Rankin killed my son.”

She said she didn’t hate Rankin.

“If I believed as deeply as they (her other family members) did, how could I hate John Rankin? Mark got to walk with Jesus before the rest of us,” Howle said.

Howle disputes the claims that her son had an affair with a neighbor’s wife.

“When he was involved with a girl, he was true. He’d never step out on her (fiancee Meloney McCorkle),” she said.

Ritchie was Howle’s only child. He had no children.

“Nothing’s ever going to be the same,” she said.

Howle said she thinks Kenerly did a fantastic job with the case, although she did want to respond to the defense attorney’s characterization of her son.

Jessica Hensley, a second cousin of Ritchie’s, said she’s sympathetic toward Rankin’s family, especially his mother, Phyllis Harris.

“She doesn’t know what’s going on, which makes it harder on her,” she said.

Hensley said it’s even more difficult at this point because the fate of Harris’ son is undecided and Ritchie’s death, although tragic, came as a surprise and with abrupt finality.

Hensley hugged Phyllis Harris and Harris’ sister, Sheila Rankin-Steele, during a break before heading out with the rest of her family.

Ritchie’s aunts, Paula Bradley and Willie “Sissy” Cagle, said their nephew was a “loving person,” “our rock” and someone who they depended on.

The family said Ritchie loved to dance and was “tight with money,” preferring to save it for hunting season.

In the meantime, the family will continue to light a candle in Ritchie’s memory during the holidays.

Rankin’s family said they would wait until after sentencing to comment.

Rankin’s family

Before the verdict phase of the trial, Beale spoke with Rankin’s son, Cedric Hawkins, 22, to inform him of his rights regarding a bench warrant that was issued for his arrest.

Beale issued the warrant Wednesday for the first-degree murder and robbery of Ritchie.

The judge set a rule-24 hearing for Dec. 20. Hawkins will be appointed an attorney or retain current attorney, Darrin Jordan. At that time, evidence will be presented to show elements that warrant a capital prosecution.

Judge Beale denied Hawkins bond Thursday based on the capital offense status of the case.

First-degree murder is considered a capital offense.

The sentencing part of Rankin’s trial continues today at 9:30 a.m.

Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or spotts@salisburypost.com.