Inmates sentenced in Vaughn prison riot case

WILMINGTON — A chapter in the ongoing James T. Vaughn prison riot saga came to a close at the sentencing of three inmates, Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Royal Downs, on Friday afternoon at the New Castle County Courthouse.

On Feb. 1, 2017, a group of masked inmates violently took control of C Building in the Smyrna prison. Over the course of a 19-hour standoff with police, correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd was brutally beaten and killed, correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson were severely beaten and prison counselor Patricia May was held captive.

In October 2017, 18 inmates were charged with perpetrating the riot — 16 of whom were charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, riot and assault and the remaining two accused of all but murder.

Three separate trials seeking to charge eight of the inmates resulted in few convictions for the state. Eventually in May, the DOJ announced its intention to not pursue charges on any of the remaining inmates.

On Friday, Staats received two life terms for the murder of Lt. Floyd. He received another 153 years for assault, kidnapping and riot.

Co-defendant Ayers, who was acquitted in Lt. Floyd’s death, was sentenced to 123 years for assault, kidnapping and riot.

Downs, the prosecution’s star witness, was sentenced to three years for riot.


Although Staats, Ayers and Downs were all already facing life sentences for earlier crimes, their sentences on Friday were an opportunity for victims to make a statement. Only three, Mr. Wilkinson, Ms. May and Lt. Floyd’s widow Saundra, did so. The statements struck notes of pain, forgiveness and faith.

Dwayne Staats

In his statement, Mr. Wilkinson urged the court to see to it that the three men spend the remainder of their lives under the tightest security possible, as they’ve proven what they’re capable of under lower security conditions. He noted that he and his fellow survivors continue to suffer mentally and physically from the injuries sustained on the day of the riot — citing migranes, post traumatic stress disorder and chronic anxiety.

“I will always be in treatment for this,” he said. “A lot of people think this is over now, it’s done. But, they don’t understand that we will live with this for the rest of our lives.”

In her emotional statement, Ms. Floyd, who’s rarely appeared publicly and never spoken to directly of the incident, expressed the deep pain she and her family have experienced from Lt. Floyd’s murder.

“February 1, 2017 was the beginning of an unimaginable nightmare that we have yet to awaken from,” she said.

Noting that she struggled with her faith during the ordeal, she said she could not understand why her husband’s life meant “so little to others.” Despite the outcome of the trials, Ms. Floyd said that she and her family have reassured themselves that “God will have the final judgment, not man.”

“For each of you involved, I pray for you,” she said. “I pray that somehow you can find some type of peace in your life, and that my family can find peace in our lives.”

For her part, Ms. May said she came to the sentencing to offer forgiveness and make an appeal to the state to bring more rehabilitative programs “back to the prisons.”

“There needs to be forgiveness and healing on both sides of this issue,” she said.


Accepting full responsibility for the riot as one of the planners, Staats told the court before his sentence was issued that the violent uprising was part of a plan to promote a change in prison conditions.

“I stand here before you because my aspirations to eliminate the systemic disorder that plagues James T Vaughn Correctional Center,” he said.

“For years, many had endured this plight, but the vast majority became paralyzed by anger, inferiority and abuses. My comrades and I drifted along the sea of subjugation, but ultimately we refused to drown. While critics question the methods we used to carry out our mission, none of them, not even in hindsight, has offered any viable alternatives that would have urged the higher-ups to address all concerns in an expeditious manner.”

He also expressed “sympathy” for the Floyd family.

Despite already serving a life sentence for a previous murder, Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. issued Staats the maximum sentence available for each of the crimes he was convicted of.

“You have testified and told the court on many occasions that you are the self-proclaimed leader and organizer of the takeover of Building C on February 1,” said Judge Carpenter.

“While you attempt to justify your actions because of the conditions at Vaughn, it is also clear that you knew guards could potentially be harmed and simply believed the results justified your actions. You have never spoken an ounce of remorse for the harm done to Sgt. Floyd, Officer Wilkinson or Officer Smith. You deserve nothing less than the maximum penalty the court can impose.”

Jarreau Ayers

In his statement, Ayers thanked his family and friends who have supported him ever since he was incarcerated 19 years ago. He alleged to have spent his time in prison being “tortured by the system.” He also heaped scorn on the prosecution, claiming they sought “to get innocent men to flip on righteous men.”

“I don’t think a case review would show that I physically tortured, assaulted or kidnapped anybody,” he said. “I think that what’s going on today, is the that I chose to look the system in the eyes and not flinch.”

Judge Carpenter went comparatively lighter on Ayers’ sentence, but it still amounted to about 100 more years in prison on top of his existing life sentence.

“It is unfortunate that you stand before me with the sentences you’ve already received and the sentence you’re going to get now,” he said. “It’s a tragedy for you, but you know that on Feb. 1 something really bad happened — you can try to justify it by the conditions over there, but at the end of the day, nothing justifies an officer being killed, two officers being brutally beaten and Ms. May being terrorized.”

Downs was the only inmate to accept a plea deal long before the trials started. He figured heavily in each trial as a cooperating witness for the state, testifying against who he claimed to be fellow rioters.

During the trials, defense attorneys routinely grilled Downs on the bargain he made with the state when he pleaded guilty to riot — a crime that only comes with a zero- to three-year sentence.

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

Several times it was suggested that Downs had intentions to use his cooperation with the prosecution to get leniency in his original murder conviction in Maryland. Downs admitted from the stand, that prior to and since the riot, there have been developments in his original murder conviction in the form of a recanted testimony that may lead to it being overturned with the help of a lawyer.

Downs maintained throughout the course of the trials to have been aware of a planned protest among some of the inmates in C Building prior to the incident and took part in several “meetings” to help orchestrate it. However, he alleged 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.

Royal Downs

Downs has said repeatedly that 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.”

On Friday, he asked the court through a defense lawyer for sentencing leniency because he feared bringing him back to Delaware (from the Maryland prison where he currently resides) would put him at risk. The lawyer noted that Downs had lived up to “his end of the bargain,” “subjected himself to public and institutional scorn” and in becoming a “rat or a snitch, your no longer safe anywhere.”

In Downs’ personal statement, he expressed sympathy for the Floyd family and said Lt. Floyd didn’t deserve what had happened to him.

“I wish I could have done more,” he said.

Judge Carpenter said the reduction in sentence resulting from his plea bargain already reflects an acknowledgment of his cooperation. However, because of Downs’ involvement in the plot, he was given the full three years for the riot charge to which he pleaded guilty. But, for security reasons, the years will only be served after his life sentence is served in Maryland.

Official response

Recently minted Department of Correction commissioner Claire DeMatteis expressed mixed feelings about the sentencing.

“Although today’s sentencing brings some measure of accountability for the crimes committed on Feb. 1, 2017, those who have been impacted feel strongly that under the circumstances, no sentence handed down today can fully serve the interests of justice or lessen the pain and loss felt by the Floyd family who have forever lost a husband, father, brother and son,” she said.

“The DOC family has come together today to support the Floyd family and our colleagues who continue to feel deeply the loss of a respected correctional officer and friend. Lt. Floyd’s service and his sacrifice are never far from our hearts and minds.

In his honor, today and every day, we recognize the incredibly demanding, difficult and dangerous job of supervising offenders in our correctional system and honor the exceptional men and women of the Delaware DOC who do that work with professionalism and excellence every day.”

Correctional Officer Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp struck a note of frustration, saying that although the three inmates were found guilty, no substantial punishment faced them.

“This has been an epic failure by the criminal justice system in the state of Delaware and we pray this never happens again,” he said. “We really struggle with this and implore the General Assembly to please take a look at having proper tools available — the death penalty in certain situations — because what we had today was in no way, shape or form justice. There must be a deterrent for someone already doing a life sentence.”

Speaking for the prosecution, deputy attorney general John Downs said they found the many not-guilty verdicts returned during the trials “disappointing.” He lamented the state’s high burden of proof and noted that the state was in a position where they had to bring forward witnesses that had a “lot to lose and little to gain by testifying.”

“Lost in all this continuing chaos is that Steven Floyd was murdered to advance Dwayne Staats’ and Jarreau Ayers’s malignant agenda against the prison system,” he said. “Josh Wilkinson, Winslow Smith and Patricia May’s lives were harmed because sentenced inmates wanted to be treated nicer, have more phone calls and less restriction on their lives. They decided torture, terror and violence were the way to go and they’re proud of that. That’s disturbing.”

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