Jury selection begins for 3rd trial in Vaughn prison riot case

WILMINGTON — Jury selection began Monday at New Castle County Courthouse for the third of four trials to determine the fate of inmates charged in the deadly 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.
Opening arguments are scheduled to begin next Monday, according to court staff.

Unlike the first two trials, one trying three inmates together and the other trying four, only one inmate, Roman Shankaras, will face the prosecution in Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s courtroom.

Shankaras had been included in the first trial but was dropped mere days after the opening arguments on account of a “deteriorating relationship” with his defense attorney Jason Antoine.
Further explanation wasn’t provided by the court. But it was made clear that Shankaras would stand trial at a later date.

According to Vinelink (the Delaware Department of Correction’s prisoner locater platform) the 32-year-old convict is currently being held at Vaughn prison.

Of all the inmates facing trials, the stakes are particularly high for Shankaras. Absent the events of the Feb. 1 2017, riot, he’d have likely been a free man. Originally serving time for robbery, he was convicted of “riot, intent to prevent or coerce official action” in 2012, according to DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell.

Shankaras was scheduled for release in April 2018, but is currently being held on “detentioner” charges in connection with the 2917 riot.
If convicted he faces a life sentence.

During his brief appearance in the first trial the prosecution frequently made reference to Shankaras as a “mastermind” or “shot caller” of the riot.

In previous trials the prosecution struggled to produce convincing physical evidence for the jury. Instead, they leaned heavily on testimony from other inmates who claimed to witness the riot.

However, the prosecution claims to have an incriminating letter written by Shankaras after the riot that expresses his involvement. It’s expected to figure heavily in the state’s case against him.

Originally 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 standing accused of all but murder. Much has changed since then.

The first 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 not guilty 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 were 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 Bramble’s assault and riot charges. The jury had deliberated for nearly five days.

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

Two of the 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. He was also required to testify in court on the state’s behalf in both trials so far.

Gibbs killed himself in November, shortly after the conclusion of the first trial. His suicide came days after he had 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 and an attempt to clear the names of several of the other charged inmates.

After the second trial, verdicts for nine inmates were left outstanding. That number dropped to three when the Department of Justice announced in mid-March that they decided not to pursue charges on six of the inmates.

“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,” the Department of Justice said in a statement at the time.

“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 and Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz — the two remaining indicted inmates — are scheduled to stand trial in October.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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