What was not said in a pre-trial hearing Tuesday for capital murder defendant Ryan Riggs, who is charged in the May 2016 rape and murder of Chantay Blankinship, might have been just as compelling as what was said.
What was said: District Judge Steve Ellis set a tentative trial date of Sept. 30, 2019 for an expected lengthy trial. Riggs’ attorneys are treating the case as a death penalty case, although District Attorney Micheal Murray has not announced whether the state will seek death.
Also said: arguments about whether Riggs’ defense is entitled to confidential CPS records from a child abuse investigation involving Blankinship as the victim. The suspected abuser, a male, is not someone who is in Blankinship’s family, and is not the same person as Blankinship’s stepfather, Steven McDaniel.
What was not verbally said, but stated in a written motion filed by Riggs’ attorneys: CPS records, and a recent deposition of Blankinship’s grandfather, indicate Blankinship suffered impaired mental development as the result of child abuse. These injuries “probably caused (Blankinship) to more readily consent to sexual activity,” the motion states.
Those records may bolster Riggs’ argument that his physical contact and sexual activity with 25-year-old Blankinship, of North Lake Brownwood, was consensual and not produced by force or deception, the motion states.
“The requested records are likely to be crucial to Mr. Riggs’ defense,” the motion states. “They may well serve as the basis for the submission for the lesser included offense of murder, rather than capital murder where the death penalty is sought.”
The hearing began with assistant district attorney Elisha Bird and Jane Starnes, a prosecutor with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, seated at the prosecutor’s table. On the opposite side of the courtroom, the 21-year-old, bearded Riggs sat with his attorneys, John Wright and Gary Taylor of the Lubbock-based Regional Public Defender’s Office.
Ellis spoke by speaker phone with CPS attorney Glenna Cordray of Abilene.
Cordray asked Ellis to quash a subpoena for the CPS records, arguing that Riggs has not established that he is entitled to the confidential records. Cordray also said the department has 1,838 pages of unredacted records and has also prepared 1,714 pages of redacted records, and asked that Ellis examine the records in his chambers before ruling on whether they are to be released to Riggs’ attorneys.
Wright said the defense believes it is entitled to the records. The subpoena for the records was actually issued by the district attorney’s office, and the defense sent a letter to CPS also requesting the records, Wright said.
Motion: states of minds are important
Riggs can show the court that he has “a critical need for the records” of the the alleged abuser as well as “other members of the victim’s family and others who may have resided with her for any significant period of time,” the motion states.
The state is alleging that Blankinship was sexually assaulted and kidnapped, and “in such a case, the state of mind of both the defendant and the victim are important,” the motion states.
“ … Given that the range of punishment for the lesser offense of murder is much lower than for capital murder — five years to life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole, the harm in the refusal of a court to allow the defendant to develop this defense is clear.”
The CPS records and other evidence may support a mitigating circumstance in the event of a capital murder conviction, the motion states. A juror may believe that evidence of the victim’s consent to personal contact or sexual activity “reduces the moral blameworthiness of the defendant,” the motion states.
Prosecutors will surely argue that the circumstances surrounding Blankinship’s death show that Riggs intended to commit a capital crime and will be a continuing threat to society, the motion states.
Ellis addressed other matters of the trial including “a relatively large jury panel” that will be empaneled at the Adams Street Community Center.
In an earlier hearing, prosecutors said Riggs’ trial would likely be in October 2019. At Tuesday’s hearing, Ellis selected Sept. 30 as a tentative date after Bird suggested the trial start as early as possible in October. Bird expressed concern that the trial would not be finished by the “the holidays.”
Ellis also addressed pretrial publicity and noted that a gag order is en effect. Ellis said he had been involved in an earlier capital murder trial in which the defense, on the eve of the trial, hired pollsters to question members of the community.
“I don’t want any pollsters,” Ellis said.