On Feb. 20, the Great Bend Tribune story, “Social media conduct questioned over Rankin report,” delved into informal charges Barton County Attorney Amy Mellor leveled against employees of the Barton County Sheriff’s Department regarding two posts and “likes” from other department employees on Facebook. The posts at issue claimed Mellor and Assistant County Attorney Doug Matthews assessed blame to Great Bend Police Department Lt. Heather Davis Smith for actions ordered in the state versus Jeffrey Rankin case.
Rankin was originally charged with 31 counts, including rape and aggravated indecent liberties with a child under 14 years old, possession of visual depiction of a child less than 18 years old, stalking and violation of protective orders.
Rankin’s defense attorney Ben Fisher requested a motions hearing, to dismiss the first 11 counts he was charged with on Jan. 23, 2017, because the state had exceeded the 180 days allotted to bring the defendant to speedy trial. They included the two counts of rape, two counts of indecent liberties with a child, six counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, and one count of aggravated sexual battery.
Rankin eventually pled guilty to two counts of sexual exploitation of a child/ possession of visual depiction of a child less than 18 years old. In March, 2016, at the conclusion of spring break, two minors, reported ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of Rankin to the Great Bend Police. The abuse, they said, occurred over a period of years from around 2011 to March, 2016. After they reported the abuse, the court issued protective orders for the minors. In April, 2016, Rankin allegedly broke those protective orders, adding to the counts he was charged with.
Gaining access to the record
The Tribune sought the transcript from the Nov. 13, 2017 motions hearing in order to determine what statements were made, if any, the record held as to what prompted the order to dismiss charges against Rankin.
The Tribune, in an effort to determine if Matthews had attempted to blame law enforcement in any way for the jury trial being delayed past the 180 day limit, sought the transcript from the Nov. 13, 2017 motions hearing that ultimately resulted in the first 11 charges against Rankin being dropped.
That’s when the Tribune learned the record had been sealed.
A formal Open Records Request was made, and the Tribune was informed it would be responsible for paying the Barton County Court Reporter to transcribe the notes taken at the hearing. It was estimated it could take between one and two weeks for the work to be completed.
It was also learned that the transcript of a Motions Hearing of May 15, 2017, had been erroneously filed under the listing of the Nov. 13, 2017 hearing. That motion was requested by the defense, for continuance in order to gain access to evidence believed to be on the defendant’s two cell phones in the possession of law enforcement. The continuance was granted, and the jury trial was moved from May 15, 2017 to Aug. 15, 2017.
Later, the State would request a continuance for the Aug. 15 trial date, which was reset for Nov. 13. But, no record of the reason for the continuance, nor for it being set so late in the year, are on record.
The transcript of the Nov. 13, 2017, Motions Hearing confirmed that Matthews, and by extension Mellor, had not officially blamed law enforcement for delays in bringing the case to trial.
Instead, the transcript detailed the fact that indeed, 198 days had passed prior to the Nov. 13 trial date. However, according to the transcript, it was clear that Matthews and Judge Svaty believed the circumstances of the request would allow them additional time.
But, there is no record of a hearing. That’s bad, because without that hearing, the State and Matthews, according to Judge Richard Smith, the Senior Judge Assigned, were out of luck.
Smith requested Matthews and Fisher both provide their recollections of how the new trial date was agreed upon and ended up in their calendars and the calendar of Svaty. Both offered similar but different accounts. Fisher recalled an email, and Matthews recalled an occasion when he, Fisher and Svaty discussed the matter in the courtroom. Fisher asserted his client was due a formal hearing, rather than an informal agreement.
Request to drop charges made
Fisher made the request for the motions hearing on Nov. 3, 2017 after 188 days had passed. The request was granted, and the hearing held on Nov. 13, with a total of 198 days passed.
He made the case the state had gone over the limit of 180 days and was not eligible for additional time for two reasons:
• First, he referred to case law that indicated there needed to be something on record that the court had granted an exception to the speedy trial statute for a specific reason, in this instance, that a witness was unavailable. This alone, he suggested could have afforded the state additional days.
In this instance, there was no record.
• Second, he referred to rulings by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court that said for any continuance requests, for whatever reason, the defendant needs to be in the courtroom, and the court needs to inquire of that person whether or not they agree or disagree with the continuance.
“I don’t believe Mr. Rankin was ever brought into court to voice his acquiescence or objection to a continuance of the August trial,” Fisher said.
Judge Smith, noting it was a grave decision, ruled in favor of dropping the first 11 of the 31 charges against Rankin.
Reason for plea and its acceptance unknown
Looking through the subsequent posts made to the case (2016-CR-173) found the following:
• Charges one- 11 were dropped on Nov. 13.
• In December, Matthews entered new photographic evidence found on the cell phones Rankin had requested searched back in May. Fisher objected, but Smith agreed to allow the evidence.
• On Feb. 2, the Friday before the Feb. 5 jury trial involving charges 12-31 was set to begin, a plea agreement was made. Rankin pled guilty to charge 12 and charge 18.
It was entered into the record, and a sentencing hearing was set for Wednesday April 4.
The document did not indicate why a plea was made or accepted.