Delaware drops charges against six inmates awaiting trial in Vaughn riot

A view of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, site of the deadly Feb. 1, 2017, inmate riot.

DOVER — The Department of Justice Friday afternoon announced its intention to only prosecute three of the remaining nine inmates charged with perpetrating the 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz

In a statement Friday, justice officials said “Prosecutors have an obligation only to prosecute criminal cases where they believe there is a reasonable likelihood of a conviction at trial based on the evidence.

Prosecutors in the Vaughn trials — who are among the department’s most experienced and who have done a remarkable job in an exceedingly difficult case — have evaluated the evidence against the remaining defendants in light of the testimony in the first two trials and the results of those trials.

Lawrence Michaels

Prosecutors have notified the court that the state will only continue forward with charges against Roman Shankaras, Lawrence Michaels and Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz, with Shankaras scheduled to be tried in April and Michaels and Rodriguez-Ortiz in October.”

According to the justice department, the decision was discussed with the victims in the case.

“Obtaining a measure of justice for victims is of paramount importance in all prosecution decisions,”  the statement read.

Due to the still-pending criminal cases, the DOJ said it will make no additional statement on the decision.

Roman Shankaras

Changing strategy
In October 2017, 18 inmates total were charged with perpetrating the riot. Sixteen were charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, riot and assault with the remaining two standing accused of all but murder. They were then broken into four groups to be prosecuted over many months.

Two trials, one completed last November and the other earlier this year, resulted in few convictions for the state.

In the first trial, the jury returned verdicts of guilty for Jarreau Ayers and Dwayne Staats and innocent for Deric Forney. Ayers picked up convictions for riot, kidnapping, assault and conspiracy. Staats was convicted on all of those charges plus murder.

Inmates John Bramble, Abednego Baynes, Kevin Berry and Obadiah Miller we tried in the second group. That nearly month-long trial ended in February with Baynes and Berry being acquitted. Several “no decision” verdicts were issued for Miller and Bramble. All were accused of murder, kidnapping, riot, assault and conspiracy, but after hearing the state’s case against the men, the jury of 11 women and one man were deadlocked specifically on Miller’s murder and riot counts and Brambles assault and riot charges — after deliberating for nearly five days.

Staats remains the only inmate accused of perpetrating the 2017 prison riot to be convicted of murder.

Two of the originally indicted inmates were never going to stand trial: Royal Downs and Kelly Gibbs.

Downs pleaded guilty to the riot charge before the first trial started last fall. He accepted a plea bargain that resulted in the rest of the charges he faced being dropped and him testifying in court on the state’s behalf in both trials so far.

According to the deal, he faces between zero and three years being tacked onto his sentence. While he is already serving a life sentence for prior crimes, it was pointed out during cross- examination in both trials that he’s in pursuit of having his original conviction overturned via a recanted witness testimony.

Gibbs killed himself in November, shortly after the conclusion of the first trial. His suicide came days after he’d pleaded guilty to charges of riot, kidnapping and conspiracy.

He allegedly left a suicide note that is thought to contain an admission of his involvement in the crime and an attempt to clear the names of several of the other charged inmates.

In February, Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. ruled that the note and a letter Gibbs had written to a family member were inadmissible in court and sealed both documents on the grounds that they were “unreliable” and breached certain “privacy” issues.

In the originally scheduled third trial, inmates Shankaras, Robert Hernandez, Corey Smith and Louis Sierra, were to get their day in court. With the DOJ’s announcement Friday, charges have been dropped against Hernandez, Smith and Sierra.

The fourth and final trial for the remaining five inmates — Michaels, Jonatan Rodriguez, Ortiz, Pedro Chairez and Janiis Mathis — was scheduled to begin in October. Charges have been dropped against Rodriguez, Chairez and Mathis.

The courts have said that sentencing for the convicted inmates will be determined sometime after the final trial is complete and verdicts have been delivered on all counts.

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