Prison riot aftermath, gun bills dominated 2018

DOVER — In reviewing this year’s Delaware State News, the Nov. 21 front page is most striking.

“One guilty of murder” was the huge headline.

It came at the conclusion of the first trial of inmates accused of the murder of Lt. Steven Floyd, the kidnapping of officers and counselor, and rioting Feb. 1-2, 2017, at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.

Really, this has not been a year with one big story. Rather, it was one that offered two continuously developing stories — the aftermath of the prison uprising and the debate over guns following mass shootings. Both will continue into the new year.

Dwayne Staats, one of three in the initial prison riot trial, was the inmate convicted for the murder of Lt. Floyd.

Of the other two, Jarreau Ayers was found guilty of assaulting officers and kidnapping. A third inmate, Deric Forney, was acquitted. Both were facing murder charges.

A total of 18 inmates were charged with perpetrating assault, kidnapping and rioting during the uprising, and 16 of them accused were murdering Lt. Floyd.

Kelly Gibbs, who had pleaded guilty to charges of riot, kidnapping and conspiracy, was found dead on Nov. 22 in prison. He was also one of the 16 men facing murder charges. Attorney Stephen Hampton, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates in October, said Gibbs committed suicide. The lawsuit cites inhumane conditions and mistreatment at the Smyrna prison.

On Jan. 7, jury selection will begin for four of the remaining 13 inmates facing murder charges.

Of two charged with rioting, assault, kidnapping and conspiracy, Pedro Chairez still awaits trial. The other, Royal Downs, already pleaded guilty.

Meanwhile, correctional staffing and retention issues have remained hot topics.

In a thorough story on Gov. John Carney’s first two years in office published last week, Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware said there are 217 officer vacancies and a need for nearly 400 new officers.

Among the changes made were an increase in starting salaries for correctional officers from about $35,200 to $43,000 and funds for new equipment.

A big challenge remaining is reducing overtime. In the last full fiscal year, it amounted to $31 million.

In October, the state announced it would be moving 330 inmates to Pennsylvania to reduce demands on Delaware prison staffers.

***

On our opinion pages, gun control and rights were vigorously debated through the first half of the year.

The legislature, reacting in large part to mass shootings in Las Vegas in October 2017 and at a Florida high school in February, took up numerous bills.

Here in Delaware and across the nation, students participated in planned walkouts in March to plea for changes.

“It starts with each one of us,” said Dover High senior Nadeem Boggerty. “If we have only 300 people join the conversation today, then hopefully those 300 talk to another 300 and that 300 talks to another 300 and so on as it keeps growing and growing and growing.”

Days after the Parkland, Florida, high school shootings, Delaware Gov. John Carney called for a ban on assault-style weapons.

“They have no place on the streets of our neighborhoods,” Gov. Carney said at the time.

Senate Bill 163 — an act that “prohibits the manufacture, sale, offer to sell, transfer, purchase, receipt, possession, or transport of assault weapons in Delaware” — was among the most debated. It failed to make it out of a Senate committee in June.

In April, a few hundred people gathered on Legislative Mall for a Second Amendment Institute rally. It was one of a number of gatherings in which gun rights advocates protested government overreach.

“By coming here today, you are saying to the people in the building behind me (Legislative Hall) that we the people have had enough and we’re fed up with their corrupt political agendas and their constant assault on our Second Amendment rights,” said Tyler Yzaguirre, president of the Second Amendment Institute at the April rally.

At the end of the legislative session, two bills related to keeping guns out of the hands of those with mental health concerns had passed. Reporter Matt Bittle provided a comprehensive overview of the gun legislation in August.

Another bill, addressing “bump stocks” and devices for rapid firing, passed.

A fourth change in gun laws was legislation that increased the penalty for straw purchases — buying a gun for someone who legally cannot own one — from a Class F to a Class E felony.

A bill that would have required someone to be at least 21 to buy a rifle passed in the House, but languished in the Senate.

Another that limited magazine capacity was not voted on in the House.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said in August that the debates will likely continue.

“With every mass shooting that happens, these issues will come up again,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

***

“Blue Wave” was the dominant headline on Nov. 7, the day after Delawareans voted in the mid-term election. At the top of the ballot, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper won his fourth consecutive term.

Democrats now hold all statewide offices and majorities in the state House and Senate.

Republican Tom Wagner, state auditor for 29 years, announced in February that he would not seek reelection. His seat now belongs to Democrat Kathy McGuiness.

Likely, the biggest jolt to Republicans was Ken Simpler’s loss to Democrat Colleen Davis in the state treasurer’s race. Mr. Simpler, many have speculated, was the Republicans’ likely candidate for governor.

Democrat Kathy Jennings will be the next attorney general of Delaware, filling a seat vacated by Democrat Matt Denn.

“The biggest winner tonight isn’t any one candidate — it’s the overwhelming majority of Delawareans who value inclusion and optimism over division and dystopia,” said Delaware Democratic Party Chairman Erik Raser-Schramm on Election Night. “This was far more than a rejection of Donald Trump and his enablers. It was an affirmation that Delawareans never lost their will to fight for the things that connect us or our collective hope for a better tomorrow.”

Democrats gained a seat in the Senate in the mid-terms and now have a 12-9 majority, following Laura Sturgeon’s win over Republican Greg Lavelle, the Senate minority whip.

There will be 12 first-time representatives in the state house. Democrats now hold a 26-15 majority.

***

Delaware has had another year of 100-plus highway deaths.

The deadliest day was July 6. A New Jersey man and his four daughters were killed in a crash on Del. 1, near Middletown. They were returning to Teaneck, New Jersey, from a summer vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, when their van was hit by a truck that had crossed the median into their northbound lane.

The driver of the pickup truck faces five counts of second-degree vehicular homicide, three counts of vehicular assault.

As of Dec. 27, Delaware had 111 highway fatalities.

***

It was also a year of big news for the state’s casinos.

In June, Delaware became the first state — besides Nevada — to offer single-game bets after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In October, NASCAR fans had their first opportunity to bet on the race they were watching at Dover International Speedway. The winner Chase Elliott thrilled fans that had 10-1 odds.

On the final night of the legislative session in June, lawmakers approved cuts to gaming taxes on slot machines and table games after years of casino lobbying.

The changes, sought to help Delaware’s casinos contend with increased competition in the region, were estimated to reduce state revenue by $16.8 million.

In mid-July, Dover Downs announced a planned sale to Rhode Island-based gaming company Twin Rivers. The sale was projected to be finalized early in 2019.

***

Other memorable headlines from 2018:

•Judging from single-copy sales and readership leading up to the Super Bowl, the Eagles’ championship will likely be one of our readers’ most-cherished memories. Gov. Carney even sang “Fly, Eagles, Fly” at a few events.

Wilma Mishoe became the 11th president of Delaware State University, assuming a role her father Luna held from 1960-1987.

•Work began on an overpass at Del. 1 in Milford in March; and a long-awaited overpass in South Frederica opened mid-summer.

Paul Stanley, lead singer of the rock band KISS, was the commencement speaker at Wesley College in May.

Wesley College football coach Mike Drass, who led the Wolverines to 14 playoff appearances in 25 seasons, died unexpectedly in May. He was 57.

•Delaware had perhaps its worst bout with weather in January. In Kent and Sussex, 6-9 inches of snow fell and harsh winds and temperatures challenged DelDOT to keep roads clear.

•Opioid overdoses continue to be a challenge for state health officials. So far this year, 286 deaths have been reported.

•The USS Delaware, a nuclear submarine, was christened in October.

On Jan. 1, check delawarestatenews.net for a slideshow of all 365 front pages.

Andrew West is executive editor of the Delaware State News.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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