Inmate claims responsibility for planning prison riot

WILMINGTON — In a surprise twist Tuesday, one of the 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the deadly prison riot on Feb. 1, 2017, testified that he facilitated the entire uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

“This is me taking responsibility for the uprising — owning it,” Dwayne Staats said on the witness stand.

On Tuesday morning the prosecutors — Deputy Attorneys General John Downs, Nichole Warner and Brian Robertson — rested after about three weeks of building their case.

The defense then took its turn.

The 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the riot are being tried separately in five groups. The first group consists of inmates Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of three counts of murder in the first degree in addition to kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting charges. All three pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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

Despite having three separate cases, the defense tore through their witnesses at breakneck speed and rested as of Tuesday afternoon — taking only a single day to answer to the state’s case.

Ayers called three inmate witnesses who were housed in C Building (the site of the riot) to testify before putting himself on the stand. Staats called two inmates before testifying himself. Forney instructed Mr. Gifford to simply put him on the stand as well.

‘This is going to be epic’

Since Staats and Ayers were representing themselves, they took the stand and gave their testimonies in a “narrative style,” then faced cross-examination by the prosecution.

When it was his turn, Staats read a letter used as evidence by the prosecution and attempted to explain it line by line for the jury.

Dwayne Staats

The letter was written by him to another C Building inmate (not charged with the riot). It was confiscated during a “cell shakedown” several months after the incident.

Though the state used an expert handwriting analyst to tie the letter to Staats last week, he openly admitted to writing it on Tuesday.

In the letter, Staats indicated that he planned and facilitated the riot.

With a tone of apparent self-satisfaction, Staats noted in the letter that if his “number was called” the trial was “going to be epic,” especially when he had the chance to question the state’s witnesses.

In the letter, he also claims that “he’s definitely going to write a book when it’s all over.”

Characterizing the riot more as highlighting a social injustice than a violent crime, he says it’s been “surreal” to see his vision grow from a “single thought.”

During the course of his testimony and cross-examination, Staats indicated that although the murder wasn’t part of the original plan, he suspected violence would result from the inmates’ attempt to take control of the building.

He claims to have solicited help from at least six other inmates to help him overthrow the three correctional officers in the building. He refused to identify them by name, but said they weren’t the inmates indicted by the state.

During cross-examination, he described Lt. Steven Floyd’s death as a tragedy and claimed that the correctional officer’s murder was separate from the uprising. Still, he maintained that although he was responsible for planning the riot, he never assaulted or killed anyone personally.

The rationale for the uprising Staats provided to the jury was that he believed he had to draw focus to the alleged prison failures and inhumane conditions in an attention grabbing way.

He claims his two immediate goals were to get media coverage on a list of inmate demands and speak to Gov. John Carney about prison conditions.

To some extent, Staats credits himself for putting the Department of Correction into political focus, saying: “it was mainly about the governor at least acknowledging what was going on in the prisons.”

He said that although he never got a “letter of intent” from Gov. Carney that was allegedly promised during the hostage negotiations, the governor ordered an independent review of the Vaughn Correctional Center in the aftermath of the riot to assess conditions — which, when complete, Staats said, closely mirrored the list of inmate demands in terms of suggested reforms.

“It’s crazy, because he put out an investigative report — so he didn’t do it on my time, but he ended up doing it anyway,” Staats told the jury.

Closing arguments expected

For their parts, Ayers and Forney both proclaimed their innocence.

Ayers continued an attack on the prosecution’s case that the defense had cultivated during cross-examinations, undermining credibility and questioning the motivations of inmates who “turned state witness.”

Ayers pointed to the lack of evidence connecting him to any of the crimes of which he stood accused and dismissed the scant testimony that implicated him.

He admitted that he knew a potential “peaceful protest” was being planned in the lead-up to the riot and that after the riot had started he got involved to help organize the release of inmates who needed medical care. But rejected all other claims.

“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen before the riot, but I knew something was going to happen,” Ayers said to the jury. “But, I never kidnapped nobody. Never assaulted nobody. Never killed nobody.”

When it was Forney’s turn on the stand, he flatly denied all prior knowledge of and participation in the riot. It was the first chance the jury had to hear Forney’s voice as he’s long sat quietly beside Mr. Gifford during the proceedings.

Being moved to C Building just over a month before the riot, Forney said he stayed in his cell for the duration of the uprising until it was put down in the early hours of Feb. 2, 2017.

The trial is expected to resume on Thursday when the jury will hear closing arguments from the prosecution and defense. Afterward, the jury will begin deliberation.


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