Jury to begin deliberating in prison riot trial


WILMINGTON — The jury heard closing statements on Thursday in the ongoing trial to decide the fates of three of the 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the Vaughn prison riot last year that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

After hearing strongly worded monologues from the prosecution and defense, the jury was excused for the day and is expected to begin deliberating today.

In their closing statements, the prosecution said the riot was a meticulously planned and organized violent attack on law enforcement and that the evidence they presented to the jury was enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the three men on trial were guilty of murder, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy.

The defense fired back, coming down hard on the state’s alleged lack of compelling evidence, “shoddy” investigation and blatantly inconsistent eyewitness testimony.

Defense attorney Ben Gifford, who represents Deric Forney (one of the indicted inmates), blasted the state’s handling of the crime — suggesting it was poorly handled from day one.

“What happened to Sgt. Floyd is a tragedy, it shouldn’t have happened, but so was this investigation,” Mr. Gifford said to the jury on Thursday. “He didn’t deserve what happened to him, but he didn’t deserve this investigation either.”

On Tuesday, Deputy Attorneys General John Downs, Nichole Warner and Brian Robertson rested their case and passed the reins over to the defense. The 18 inmates indicted with perpetrating the riot are being tried separately in five groups. The first group consists of inmates Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Forney.

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

While the prosecution took just over three weeks to build their case, the defense wrapped up their counter argument in a single day — setting up the Thursday statements.

During the prosecution’s initial closing statement, Mr. Downs rehashed the evidence presented during the trial. Since there was little forensic evidence to speak of, the bulk of the time was spent reviewing the testimonies of surviving hostages and of just over a dozen inmate eyewitnesses who were housed in C Building (the site of the riot) during the incident.

Mr. Downs claimed that because the crime scene was so badly “tainted” when the Department of Correction and Delaware State Police regained control of C Building after the nearly 19-hour hostage stand-off — investigators had difficulty collecting DNA, fingerprint and other forensic evidence that may have “clinched” the case. Attempting to diminish its value in this specific case, he added that because the 126 inmates in C Building residing in the building during the incident had already been “living” there, their DNA would likely be found arbitrarily all around the building.

Mr. Downs said because of the circumstances, the state built its case largely on the eyewitness accounts of other inmates during the riot. They claimed that through 24 inmates’ statements, they were able to build a comprehensive understanding of what transpired and correctly identify the “masterminds” and “soldiers” responsible for the riot. While all the inmates indicted with Lt. Floyd’s murder may not have dealt the “death blow,” they should be help responsible under “accomplice liability theory,” claimed Mr. Downs.

Though the consistency and good faith of the inmate testimonies was called into question repeatedly during the trial by the defense, the prosecution brushed aside this concern during their final statements, urging jurors to use “common sense.”

Defense fires back

In a brief closing statement, Staats alleged that the state failed its task of providing proof of his guilt — saying they provided jurors with “insufficient information.” Though he took responsibility for planning, organizing and putting the riot into motion during his own testimony on Tuesday, he again claimed that the murder of Lt. Floyd wasn’t part of that plan and instead a separate crime committed by other inmates.

Noting the jurors “freedom” to do as they pleased, his final words were to gently suggest a not guilty verdict.

“I know it’s not realistic, by ya’ll don’t have to find me guilty of nothing,” said Staats.

In a longer, impassioned closing statement, Ayers attempted to poke holes in the state’s case for the better part of an hour. At some point lifting his voice to a near shout, Ayers went through the case allegation by allegation, pointing out where each inmates’ testimony conflicted with either statements they’d given earlier to investigators or with other inmates’ testimonies. Ayers said the prosecution was suggesting that the jury “pick and choose” certain parts of each testimony to believe and others to disregard.

Mr. Gifford’s closing statement focused primarily on the “shoddy” investigation that turned up his client as a participant. Reminding the jury that there was zero forensic evidence tying Forney to the riot and scant and unreliable witness testimony that had him assaulting a correctional officer, Mr. Gifford claimed the only option is a not guilty verdict.

“He’s not only not guilty, he’s innocent,” said Mr. Gifford.

Mr. Gifford also relentlessly attacked the notion of finding the indicted inmates guilty under accomplice liability theory and the importance of DNA evidence. Mr. Gifford questioned the prosecution’s claim that DNA evidence was important in this case because the inmates resided at the crime scene prior to the incident. If that were the case, Mr. Gifford said to the jury, then why did the initial crime scene investigators “dust everything” for prints and make one of the largest evidence submissions to the Division of Forensic Science in state history. He alleged that they were claiming that type of evidence was less important because the didn’t have any to provide.

Additionally, he questioned which items they did and didn’t send for analysis — asking open-endedly why a bloody glove (shown to the jury earlier in crime scene photos) and the bloodied clothing of the assaulted correctional officers were never examined for DNA evidence.

“The poor, shoddy investigation work piles up,” he said.

Verdict incoming

On Thursday afternoon, Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. briefed jurors on the task ahead of them. Reading from a jury instruction booklet, the judge took almost an hour to educate them on the specific laws pertinent to the case and how each should be considered in this specific context.

The jury is expected to begin deliberation this morning. Judge Carpenter stressed the importance of taking their time and considering the case carefully.

“I can’t tell you how long it’ll take you,” he said. “It may not be done in a day, I don’t know.”

Before dismissing the four alternate jurors, the judge ensured that all 12 of the primary jurors would be able to return next Monday and Tuesday if needed. However, he said that the court won’t be in session during Thanksgiving.

“We’ll get to Tuesday if we need to and then decide what to do from there,” he said.

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