Jury to begin deliberation in Vaughn riot trial

 

WILMINGTON — Despite a snow delay on Monday morning, closing arguments in the ongoing trial to decide the fate of four of the 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the 2017 Vaughn prison riot were delivered to the jury.

The prosecution outlined its case for the jurors first, and three of the four defenses recapped theirs. The remaining defense is expected to make their closing argument and the prosecution will have a chance for rebuttal this morning in Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s New Castle County courtroom. Then it’ll be up to the jury of 11 women and one man to decide on the four men’s futures.

Currently on trial, the second in a series of four, are John Bramble, Abednego Baynes, Kevin Berry and Obadiah Miller who are accused of riot, assault, kidnapping, conspiracy and murder. Monday marked the first day of the trial’s fifth week.

In his closing argument for the state, Deputy Attorney General John Downs unpacked each charge for the jurors, claiming the four men on trial were guilty of them either directly or through “accomplice liability.” Calling the riot a “coordinated, simultaneous attack,” Mr. Downs said the men before the jury were soldiers in the plot to overthrow C Building in Vaughn prison — an action that made the murder of Lt. Steven Floyd and brutal beating or otherwise traumatizing of those taken hostage “reasonably foreseeable.”

Bringing back the picture of Lt. Floyd’s beaten face from his autopsy, Mr. Downs reminding jurors about the tortuous death he suffered.

“He died of the injuries he sustained in the violent takeover, even death that wasn’t enough,” he said. “As detailed in the autopsy, there were postmortem burns that showed even after he bled to death, they threw burning objects onto his body.”

Absent substantial physical evidence, Mr. Downs recapped the over two dozen inmate eyewitnesses that testified over the course of the trial and painted the complex “chaotic melee” for the jury — noting again where each witness claimed to see each defendant during the 19-hour hostage standoff. Afterward, he encouraged the jury to use their “common sense” in navigating the web of testimony and hold the charged men accountable for the proposed crimes.

Baynes’ defense attorney Cleon Cauley was the first to fire back. In his closing statement he maintained that Baynes had no prior knowledge of or participation in the riot. Attacking the state’s case against his client, Mr. Cauley claimed that the two inmate witnesses to testify specifically against Baynes not only contradicted one another, but seriously lacked credibility. Noting their differing descriptions of the initial assault on officers, Mr. Cauley said in order to believe one of their testimonies one would have to disbelieve the other.

Not stopping at just the case, Mr. Cauley hammered the investigation that led to charges as well.

“The investigation was poorly handled, there’s no way around that,” he told the jury.

Specifically, he noted that photos of only two inmates (of 126) were taken after they were removed from C Building. He said taking photos of all the inmates would have been important to both examine them for wounds consistent with assaulting an officer, but also to give eyewitnesses the chance to review recent photos of suspects. They were forced to ID them by their original mug shots instead, many of which were almost a decade old.

Retouching on another recurring theme in the trial, Mr. Cauley noted that suspects and witnesses were housed together after the end of the riot — giving them a chance to coordinate stories with one another and ultimately taint any testimony.

“At the very least the state could have tried to separate the thirty or so inmate witnesses willing to talk to them,” he said.

Insisting on Berry’s innocence, his attorney, Andy Witherell, said the state failed to meet its burden to prove that his client had any level of participation in the riot. Once again calling the state’s witness a “cast of characters” as he did in his opening statement, he even barked that Henry Anderson — one of the state’s key inmate witnesses against several of the defendants — figuratively burned a hole in the Bible he swore on.

“When he came to Berry’s photograph in the first trial he actually said: ‘I don’t know what he did,’ but in this trial he suddenly sees him involved in the riot — his own testimony doesn’t agree with itself,” said Mr. Witherell. “He’s not credible in the least.”

As for Miller, the sole defendant facing an article of physical evidence, his defense attorney, Tony Figliola, said the DNA sample presented by the state proved nothing

Calling back to state DNA expert, Lauren Rothwell’s appearance in court, Mr. Figliola reminded jurors that the sample found in the mop closet (where Lt. Floyd was held during the riot) could have been there circumstantially.

The sample provided to the state’s lab was a blood swab, but, Ms. Rothwell explained that Lt. Floyd was the majority contributor to the sample while Miller was only found to be a minor contributor. It’s not uncommon that a single crime scene sample can contain genetic material from several individuals. Ms. Rothwell had noted that she couldn’t be certain whether the blood itself belonged to Lt. Floyd or Miller and also that it was possible Miller’s “touch DNA” such as sweat, skin cells and the like, could have been in the room.

Because Miller was a tier man (an inmate with janitorial responsibilities and regular contact with the mop closet), Mr. Figliola told the jury it’s perfectly reasonable to expect his DNA would be found there.

Characterizing him as someone with everything to lose, Mr. Figliola reminded the jury that Miller was scheduled for release from prison this October.

“He’s a short-timer, he would have to be a total freaking idiot to have gotten involved in this,” he said.

He instead suggested that his position as a tier man — a responsibility given to him by Lt. Floyd himself — drew disdain from other inmates.

Defense attorney Tom Pederson is expected to offer a closing argument on behalf of Bramble first thing this morning.

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

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