Accused prison ‘puppet master’ testifies he took no part in riot

WILMINGTON — Friday was a loaded day for the jury in the latest Vaughn prison riot trial at the New Castle County Courthouse.

After rolling out two week’s worth of testimony, prosecutors rested their case and passed the reins over to the defense.

In the afternoon the jury had its first opportunity to hear the voice of the alleged “puppet master,” 32-year-old defendant Roman Shankaras, an inmate who stands accused of riot, kidnapping, conspiracy, assault and murder.

In his telling of the incident that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead, Shankaras claimed he was aware of rising tensions in C Building (the site of the riot) and planned on participating in a “peaceful protest” being organized by other inmates.

Questioned by his defense attorney Patrick Collins, Shankaras said two separate plans were being devised: One included a “worker strike” and the other a refusal to return from the recreational yard.

Both non-violent plans were an attempt to get the attention of high ranking prison officials in the hope they would address limited access to phones and visitation, small food portions and other “issues,” claimed Shankaras.

However, on Feb. 1 the plan changed without his knowledge, Shankaras said. A separate group of masked inmates violently took control of the building by assaulting correctional officers and holding them and the building’s counselor captive.

Alleging that he didn’t participate, Shankaras says he spent the duration of the 19-hour hostage standoff confined to his cell — only leaving twice to attempt phone calls to his family.

Contrary to his story, prosecutors have presented a case that suggests Shankaras was one of the primary planners of the riot.

A string of witnesses, mostly other inmates, have taken the stand to say that they observed the rioters ”reporting” to Shankaras’s cell during the incident and coming to him for “orders.”

However, the state’s chief piece of evidence against him are several “kites” (prison letters) they claim Shankaras wrote to Royal Downs — one of the other inmates charged with perpetrating the riot.

Downs pleaded guilty to the riot charge shortly after being indicted as part of a plea deal that resulted in the other charges against him being scrubbed. He’s acted as a key state witness in both prior trials and last week in the current trial.

Roman Shankaras

Though the state summoned a professional handwriting analyst to link the letters to Shankaras, he’s willingly admitted that he wrote both.

Last week, Downs testified that the letters from Shankaras were written to provide a detailed synopsis of the assault on officers and the killing of Lt. Floyd because there was an implicit understanding among the rioters that those already serving life sentences (like Downs himself) would stand up and “take the charges.”

Downs is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Shankaras, originally jailed for robbery, was scheduled to be released last year. He would already be a free man were it not for the pending charges. If convicted in this trial, he faces a life sentence.

Downs, deciding early on to cooperate with authorities, said he kept the letters and smuggled them out of the prison to a family member for safe keeping. He did so in an attempt to later leverage them with prosecutors to obtain a plea deal. Downs told the jury that Shankaras was a “puppet master” responsible for orchestrating the riot.

Attempting to explain the letters on Friday, Shankaras told the jury that in the first letter he’d merely been providing Downs with the information he’d overheard from other inmates at his request.

As for the second letter, Shankaras claimed that Downs had asked him to copy down a “narrative” in his own handwriting that Downs himself had written because it’d be “useful to him” if he was eventually charged with the riot.

When asked why he’d do this, Shankaras claimed he was in an “impossible situation” in the wake of the riot — on the one hand fearful of correctional officers’ retribution against all C Building inmates and on the other in fear of other inmates who may suspect him of “snitching” to investigators.

He said that Downs’s clout among fellow inmates was such that he felt if he didn’t cooperate, he’d become a “target.”

“It’s not like voluntary, it was through force,” Shankaras said from the stand. “There are just some guys you can’t say no to,”

Not suspecting the letters would ultimately be used against him, Shankaras claimed that he thought it didn’t matter because he’d be “going home soon.”

Deputy Attorney General John Downs repeatedly hammered Shankaras on cross-examination about his reasoning for writing the letters.

Putting the letters themselves on the overhead projector, the prosecution pursued a line of question that highlighted the accuracy of Shankaras’s description of the assaults — suggesting that the information could have only been obtained by someone with an important role in the riot rather than hearing it details secondhand.

Noting that the second letter was akin to a written confession, the prosecution chipped away at Shankaras’s claim that it was copied from a narrative Royal Downs had prepared for him.

“Royal tricked you into writing a confession with nothing more than just asking you to put this down in your own handwriting?” asked John Downs, incredulously.

“At the time, I didn’t focus on it, I just wrote it out and sent it back,” replied Shankaras.

Through the questioning, Shankaras insisted that he was simply trying to appease Royal Downs in an effort to “balance the situation” until his release.

Earlier on Friday, Mr. Collins also called Kenjuan Congo — an inmate who lived in the neighboring cell to Shankaras during the incident — to testify.

Congo claimed Shankaras wasn’t involved in the riot and even at one point discussed with him that it seemed “pointless.”

Dwayne Staats — another of the 18 inmates who was accused of perpetrating the riot — was also called to testify by the defense. Staats stood trial late last year and was convicted of riot, conspiracy, kidnapping, assault and murder.

As he has in previous trials, Staats claimed that he planned the violent riot and took credit for recruiting “soldiers” to help him.

Staats said Friday that Shankaras wasn’t recruited by him because he was a “short-timer” (a soon-to-be-released inmate). During their cross-examination, the prosecutor’s line of questioning illustrated for the jury that Staat’s testimony during his own trial last year and the second trial that wrapped up earlier this year was inconsistent.

The prosecution also asked why the jury should seriously consider Staat’s testimony that Shankaras wasn’t involved if Staats was unwilling to provide the names of those who were involved to authorities, despite claiming to have recruited them personally.

Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s court is in recess next Monday, but both the prosecution and defense are expected to offer closing arguments on Tuesday morning before handing the case to the jury for deliberation.

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