Inmates’ civil lawsuit adds complexity to Vaughn prison riot trial

WILMINGTON — The ongoing criminal trial to decide the fate of 18 inmates charged in connection with the 2017 Vaughn prison riot is complicated on its own.

But, a new layer of complexity was added Wednesday when Dover attorney Stephen Hampton filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of more than 100 inmates housed in C Building, the site of last year’s riot.

Though none of the inmates indicted with perpetrating the riot are included in the civil suit — two were at first, but were subsequently dropped — many of the witnesses being called to testify in the trial are current plaintiffs.

The 80-page complaint outlines “inhumane conditions” at Vaughn, the state’s maximum security prison near Smyrna, and states that for many years prior to the riot that left Correctional Officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead, prison personnel “illegally abused, mistreated and tortured inmates with virtually nothing being done by their JTVCC (Vaughn prison) or DOC supervisors, to stop them.”

It’s unclear what, if any, conflicts the overlapping cases may create, but concerns about cross-purposes were raised during the criminal trial Thursday.

Defense attorney Ben Gifford, who’s representing inmate Deric Forney, sought permission from Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. to quiz inmate witnesses about their beliefs related to their pending civil suit. Though he doubted that the suit created an actual bias, Mr. Gifford said he was concerned that certain inmates may believe they have a “pecuniary interest” in the criminal trial’s verdict.

“I’d like to ask them: do you believe the outcome of this trial is important to your civil complaint,” Mr. Gifford said to the judge.

Prosecutors objected, saying they didn’t see a substantial connection.

Judge Carpenter provisionally sustained the objection — admitting to have not yet reviewed the complaint himself.

“I’m not sure where the bias is,” he said.

However, to some degree, it’s already affected protocol. Larry Sartin, an inmate who’s both an eyewitness to the riot and a plaintiff in the civil suit, arrived to testify with state-appointed counsel in the court room on Thursday. The judge explained to Sartin that if any questions made him feel uncomfortable, he would be afforded the ability to speak immediately to his attorney — which up until Thursday had apparently not been a concern for the several other inmates who testified.

Concerning any logistical or legal concerns created by the recently filed civil suit, the state gave a resounding “no comment.”

The state’s Department of Justice, Office of Defense Services, Governor’s office and Department of Correction all declined to comment on the inmates’ lawsuit.

For his part, Mr. Hampton said he feels that inmates being called as witnesses in the criminal trial are unlikely to exhibit a bias.

“I can’t imagine that the outcome of the trial will make any difference in a lawsuit about how they were treated after the riot,” he said. “If anything, their appearances as witnesses could potentially hurt them if they testify with no immunity and the state decides to charge them with conspiracy or prosecutors think they lied and decide to charge them with perjury.”

As far as any logistical burden is concerned, Mr. Hampton said he suspects that if the civil complaint gets the jury trial it demands, the criminal cases for the 18 inmates will likely have already been completed. The 18 inmates are scheduled to stand trail in five separate groups with the last one set to start in February.

Mr. Hampton said he’s hoping for an outcome that sees his clients compensated for the “criminal assault” he claims they suffered and, ideally, DOC held accountable to the point where the department undergoes serious reform.

“Ideally the end result is that DOC reforms itself and doesn’t allow such a lackadaisical shop where everyone does as they please,” he said. “There’s no accounting or oversight as far I can tell.”

Delaware Gov. John Carney and ex-DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe were among the defendants named in the lawsuit, along with current commissioner Perry Phelps, several wardens and a host of other DOC staff from a major to correctional officers.

Aware of Gov. Carney’s Independent Review of prison conditions leading up to the riot and subsequent initiatives rolled out by DOC administrators to address systemic ills, Mr. Hampton said he believes very little has been accomplished. Worse, Mr. Hampton says, is the DOC appears to have made no effort to examine the actions of its staff leading up to, during and after the riot.

“The DOC hasn’t held themselves accountable in the past, I don’t see why they would this time,” said Mr. Hampton. “The only DOC employees fired or dismissed are the ones that have some sort of disagreement with management — someone seen as a trouble-maker who is going to raise complaints. If you were going to fire people for incompetence or malfeasance, there’s a substantial portion of DOC management that should go right now.”

Opaque on their own examination of the riot, the DOC claimed an internal affairs investigation into the matter was “ongoing” last year. In October, DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell declined to comment on the status of that investigation.

Mr. Hampton said he hopes to force the DOC into transparency regarding the issue.

“The first thing that’s going to happen with this lawsuit is that we’re going to be asking the state for an awful lot of paper discovery,” he said. “They have to have paper records on everything that’s happened or there will be the extremely good question: ‘You guys did all this and you don’t even have any documentation?’ Every time there is a use of force, incident, disciplinary issue, medical visit or grievance filed they have to file reports on it. There’s going to be a mountain of paper that will have to be produced and gone through before we really get to talking about depositions. It’ll take awhile.”

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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