Defense pushes to undermine witness testimony in prison riot trial

WILMINGTON — A recent string of inmates testifying in the Vaughn prison riot trial continued to suggest that the prosecution’s case rests largely on C Building prisoner eyewitness accounts.

The trial, being heard by Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. at the New Castle County Court House, stretched into its tenth day on Monday.

Inmates Abdul-Hafid As-Salafi, Eugene Wiggins and Wade Smith gave their accounts of the deadly riot for the jury.

In October 2017, 18 inmates were charged in connection with the riot that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead. Sixteen of the inmates are facing murder charges and, along with two other prisoners, are also looking at kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting charges.

The indicted inmates are being tried separately in five groups. The first group consists of inmates Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of three counts of murder in the first degree.

Inmate Roman Shankaras was also part of the original group of four, but was severed from the trial last Tuesday owing to a “deteriorating” relationship with his defense attorney Jason Antoine.

Staats and Ayers have opted to defend themselves with the assistance of state-appointed counsel. Forney is being represented by attorney Ben Gifford.

Back-and-forth formula

Recent testimony from eyewitness inmates has begun to take on a characteristic back-and-forth formula. Prosecutors begin with the inmates by having them recall what the witnessed during the riot and have them identify who they believed to be part of the riot — via mugshots — and explain specifically what they observed each perpetrator doing. Then on cross-examination, the defense, with fairly consistent success, seeks to undermine each testimony by pointing out inconsistencies between what the inmate said in court versus the transcripts of earlier statements given investigators.

Mr. Gifford specifically has hammered repeatedly on the point that several inmates only came forward with names after having been housed for several months in a high security building at Vaughn prison alongside others who had been in C Building during the riot — implying that their testimony may have been tainted by suggestion or coordination among the inmates themselves.

Another common tactic

Another common tactic the defense has used is suggesting that the inmates were either coerced or persuaded into testifying in hopes that they’d gain leniency in their respective sentences.

As court redcessed on Monday night the prosecution noted its intent to bring several more inmates witnesses to the stand later in the week, along with a few Department of Correction personnel. The court house is closed today for voting.

Last week, prosecutors indicated they hoped to wrap up their presentation by this Friday.

Last week, Royal Downs, who’s often been described by the defense as the state’s “star witness,” has repeatedly come under fire during witness cross-examinations. Last week, an inmate named Henry Anderson said he saw Downs along with several other inmates “parading” correctional officer Joshua Wilkinson (one of the hostages) down a tier hallway with a pair of pants over his head.

Only hearing part of what Downs said as he moved Mr. Wilkinson down the hallway, Anderson said he did see the officer’s battered face when it was unsheathed.

“Diamond (Downs) was saying something like: ‘Y’all see what happens to people…’ but I couldn’t make out the rest because he was walking down the hall,” he said. “But when he pulled the pair of pants off his head, his face looked really bad.”

Account runs counter

Anderson’s account seemed to run counter to the more magnanimous characterization Downs painted of his participation in the riot during his testimony earlier this week. He’d cast himself as someone with considerable clout among fellow inmates who intervened only to “save lives.”

On Monday, Smith’s testimony drove this image of Downs a bit further when he admitted during cross-examination that he believed Downs “orchestrated the entire incident” and was the “mastermind.”

When Downs himself was on the stand last week, Mr. Gifford went through his plea agreement line by line, noting what he would have faced if he had pleaded not guilty like the rest of the inmates charged with the riot.

Between the four counts of kidnapping, riot and conspiracy, he would have faced a potential maximum sentence of 105 years. With his signed plea deal, that’s been relegated to a much smaller possible sentence of zero to three years.


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