Jury selection begins for first prison riot trial

WILMINGTON — For several dozen potential jurors an appointment on the 8th floor of the New Castle County Court House on Monday morning probably ended up being much more complex than they’d expected.

As they filed into the largest courtroom in the building, it soon became apparent they were being considered to sit on the jury that will decide the fate of some of the inmates charged with murder, conspiracy, kidnapping and rioting in the Feb. 1, 2017, uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

In the courtroom, four of the 18 inmates charged in connection with the incident, Roman Shankaras, Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, sat with their state-appointed counsel and were surrounded by nine correctional officers (responsible for their transportation). The 18 defendants have been broken up into five groups, each scheduled separately to appear in court between October and February 2019.

Each of the five groups will face its own jury.

The start of the first trial, Oct. 22, comes a full year after the inmates were indicted on Oct. 17, 2017. Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. will hear the cases and he believes the trial of the first group of inmates can last as long as four weeks — possibly longer.

“We don’t know for sure how long it’ll take,” he told jurors on Monday.

Two of the inmates, Staats and Ayers, have opted to defend themselves. According to an Associated Press report, Ayers’ court-appointed lawyer had to withdraw due to a conflict of interest.

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

Attorney Patrick Collins was forced to abruptly withdraw from representing Ayers after prosecutors waited until Aug. 30 to give him the names of witnesses they expect to call, one of whom was previously represented by Collins.

Both inmates were still assigned attorneys to assist them through the trial.

Ayers and Staats were already serving life sentences for murder before the riot. Shankaras is serving seven years for robbery, and Forney is serving 11 years for firearm and drug convictions.

On Monday, proceedings started with a standard line of questioning to help phase out potential jurors with conflicts or other factors that’d prevent them from delivering a dispassionate verdict.

Many of the questions were routine, like those designed to identify jurors who may be related to law enforcement officers or inmates in an attempt to highlight potential bias. Other questions hinted more directly at what may await jurors during the trial, such as a question about a jurors’ ability to view a video or photo of a victim’s body that may be “shocking” and “unpleasant” to see.

“Homicide by trauma” is the only official description the Delaware Division of Forensic Science ever released on the manner of Lt. Floyd’s death, but several comments made earlier in 2018 suggest that it was gruesome.

Speaking at a New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association rally in January, Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp said:

“Approximately a year ago, Lt. Floyd was brutally murdered, practically decapitated, his body was treated in a way that I’m not even comfortable letting you know what happened to him on that day.”

In a Jan. 13 letter to the editor advocating for the reinstatement of the death penalty in Delaware, Wilmington attorney Thomas Neuberger, who represented Lt. Floyd’s family and the riot survivor in a lawsuit against the state, said “I know that he (Lt. Floyd) was brutally tortured for over 16 hours in ways which defy imagining.”

Special attention was also paid to a possible bias the intense media attention on the Feb. 1 riot may have created for jurors as well. At least five potential jurors were dismissed because they admitted to “forming an opinion in advance.”

After several hours, the juror pool was whittled down — the most common reason for dismissal being the financial hardship that the anticipated four week commitment would create. The final jury of 12 will be selected from the reduced pool in the coming days. Opening statements in the long-anticipated trial begin on Oct. 22.

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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