Defense grills state’s star witness in prison riot trial

WILMINGTON — Though the prosecution had moved briskly through 18 witnesses in the first four days of the second Vaughn prison riot trial, the momentum was abruptly lost on Friday when the state’s “star witness” — inmate Royal Downs — took the stand.

The trial is the second in a series of four to decide the fates of 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the February 2017 Vaughn prison riot that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

The first three inmates to stand trial — Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney — were handed verdicts Nov. 20 last year. The jury found Staats guilty of all charges except for intentional first-degree murder, Ayers guilty of all charges except the three murder counts and Forney not guilty.

Downs is one of the inmates originally charged with riot, conspiracy, kidnapping and assault. But, through a agreement made shortly after being charged, he pleaded guilty to riot in exchange for having the other charges dropped.

Additionally, one of the other charged inmates, Kelly Gibbs, killed himself in November, according to the DOC — leaving 13 inmates awaiting verdicts in the case.

The four inmates currently standing trial in Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s courtroom — John Bramble, Obadiah Miller, Kevin Berry and Abednego Baynes — are facing charges of riot, kidnapping, conspiracy, assault and murder.

Much of Downs’s testimony during the prosecution’s questioning mirrored his appearance on the stand last November.

Royal Downs

As it did in the last trial, Downs’ account of the incident gave jurors the first version of the events of Feb. 1, 2017, from inside C Building, the site of the riot. He again claimed to have been aware of a planned protest among some of the inmates in C Building and took part in several “meetings” to help orchestrate it.

However, it was supposed to be a peaceful one limited to refusing to return from the recreation yard when called. Downs said he became aware that the plan had changed after witnessing masked inmates storm C Building when Lt. Floyd opened the door to let inmates in from the yard.

He says he heard Lt. Floyd screaming “code one” (assault on an officer). Downs claims he stayed in the yard to avoid getting caught up in the violence, until later being called into the building by an inmate after it had been taken over.

He claims he tried to keep mostly to himself and check on a few fellow inmates with whom he regularly associated.

“It was chaos, everyone was everywhere,” he said to the jury on Friday.

Downs said he decided to get involved in the negotiations to help resolve the situation. He cast himself as someone with considerable clout among fellow inmates who intervened only to “save lives.”

In a pivot from its original strategy during the first trial, the prosecution went over the plea agreement signed with Downs, for the jury. Prosecutors provided a rough outline of how the other charges Downs faced were dropped when he pleaded guilty to riot — a crime that only comes with a zero-to-three-year sentence.

At the first trial this information had been presented to the jury by Forney’s defense attorney Ben Gifford and used to illustrate an alleged atmosphere of “deal-making” in an attempt to undercut Downs’s testimony.

Cross-examination

When the defense had its opportunity to cross-examine the witness on Friday, both Baynes’s and Berry’s attorneys (Cleon Cauley and Andy Witherell, respectively) finished their questioning within minutes.

Taking advantage of the fact that Downs had previously stated that he saw neither Baynes or Berry involved in the riot and was “surprised to see them indicted,” they simply asked Downs to confirm this testimony.

However, prosecutors answered this by confirming with Downs that he was not a direct witness of the initial assault on Lt. Floyd.

The proceedings grounded to a halt when Bramble’s lawyer, Tom Pederson, had his opportunity to cross-examine Downs.

Downs claims to have witnessed Bramble (along with other inmates) put on a mask as he reentered C Building from the yard moments before the assault on Lt. Floyd and at a later time wielding a “shank” (improvised knife) during the riot.

As in the first trial, much was made of Downs’s plea agreement and his alleged maneuvering to secure a good outcome for himself in exchange for so-called “snitching” on his fellow indicted inmates.

Mr. Pederson’s line of questioning again suggested Downs has intentions to use his cooperation with the prosecution to get leniency in r his original murder conviction in Maryland — as Mr. Gifford had in November.

Downs is currently serving a natural life sentence and is in Delaware on an interstate compact agreement. Re-examining the plea agreement, Mr. Pederson pointed out that Downs would have faced an over-100 year sentence if found guilty of all the charges related to the riot. But, by working with the state he was able to reduce that to a maximum of three years.

Mr. Pederson went on to grill Downs on a phone conversation he had on January 2017 — three days before the riot — with his then “fiancée” referred to as Tracy. It was revealed that Downs believed a development in his original Maryland murder conviction, in the form of a possible recanted testimony, might lead to it being overturned with the help of a lawyer.

As during the first trial, it came to light during questioning that Tracy was a former correctional officer at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center who was fired in 2006 because of a “romantic relationship” she had with Downs.

Mr. Pederson pressed Downs repeatedly on the status of his current natural life sentence, prospects for obtaining parole and any deals made with the prosecution for his cooperation in the riot case.

Also in the mold cast by the first trial, Downs was quizzed on his relationship with so-called “jail house lawyer” Augustus “Hebrew” Evans — a “tier man” (someone with prison janitorial duties) on his cell block in the immediate aftermath of the riot. A document that appears to be unofficial legal advice, written by Evans, was seized by DOC authorities from Downs’s cell after the riot.

Mr. Pederson went through the document section by section, attempting to illustrate how Downs seemingly treated the advice like a how-to guide to cajole and curry favor with authorities to ultimately obtain the best outcome for himself at the expense of the other charged inmates.

Pointing to several letters Downs wrote to DOC personnel and the substance of statements made to investigators, Mr. Pederson suggested the document was like a “manuscript” that perfectly depicted the actions he’d taken in the wake of the riot.

Calling the document a “jail house lawyer’s manual,” Downs dismissed its importance and questioned the chronology of its discovery — implying that Evans had merely recorded the actions Downs had already taken rather than dictate which actions he should take.

However, it wasn’t clear when the document was first put in Downs’s possession — only when it was confiscated by DOC authorities.

Mr. Pederson hammered the hardest on the consistency of Downs’s testimony related to his client, repeatedly referring back to what he’d said in previous interviews and testimonies about Bramble’s involvement.

All of Friday was consumed with Downs on the stand and it’s expected that a good portion of Tuesday morning, when the trial resumes, will be similarly occupied.

Next up to cross-examine Downs will be Miller’s attorney, Tony Figliola. He too will likely press hard as Downs claims to have witnessed Miller assaulting Lt. Floyd in the mop closet where he was held captive.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment