Long-awaited Vaughn prison riot trial begins Monday

WILMINGTON — How did correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd die?

Who was responsible?

Could the Delaware Department of Corrections have acted in advance to avoid the deadly riot that took place last year on Feb. 1?

Did Gov. John Carney delay a rescue effort that may have saved Lt. Floyd’s life?

Those are a few of the many unanswered questions that may come to light in the upcoming high-stakes criminal trial that begins Monday.

Just over a year after they were indicted on Oct. 17, 2017, the 18 inmates charged in the Vaughn prison riot that left a correctional officer dead will have their day in court.

Opening arguments will begin Monday morning at the New Castle County Courthouse. Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. will first hear the prosecution, represented by Deputy Attorneys General John Downs, Nichole Warner and Brian Robertson.

The 18 inmates charged have been broken into five separate groups slated for trials between late October and February 2019.

On trial beginning this week are Roman Shankaras, Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney.

Staats and Ayers have opted to defend themselves with the assistance of state-appointed counsel. Shankaras and Forney are being represented by public defense attorneys Jason Antoine and Ben Gifford, respectively.

Information regarding the events leading up to Feb. 1 2017, the riot itself and its aftermath has been released from the relevant state agencies at the rate of a trickle. An overview of prison conditions was provided by a governor-ordered independent review conducted last year by former Family Court judge William Chapman Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III.

The 159-page final report cited systemic ills in the DOC including communication problems between management and staff, low morale and fatigue among correctional officers, chronic correctional officer understaffing and a lack of focus on rehabilitating prisoners as potential contributors to the inmate uprising.

The review read: “Conditions at the JTVCC had deteriorated to the point that there was unrest among inmates, and distrust between inmates and correctional officers, as well as between correctional officers and JTVCC administrators.

“Factors giving rise to this unrest included adverse working conditions for the correctional officers, who continue to feel unappreciated by the administration, inconsistently implemented rules and regulations, an inmate grievance procedure deemed unfair, a distrusted medical/mental health system and a real lack of morale permeating the line officers.”

James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Notably, the review suggested the uprising could have possibly been avoided if a request by Lt. Floyd to transfer “over five” inmates hadn’t been ignored.

“Most unfortunately, the Independent Review Team believes that had the request for the removal of certain inmates from the C-Building (the site of the riot) made on Jan. 20 by the very correctional officer who was killed during the incident that began on Feb. 1, been taken more seriously and carried out, the incident and the resulting death may not have occurred,” the report reads.

Additional details

Some additional details emerged when Lt. Floyd’s family and several survivors who were held captive during the riot launched a civil suit against the state. The original 52-page federal complaint was filed by Wilmington attorneys Thomas Neuberger and Tom Crumplar in April 2017.

Much of the complaint rested on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long-ignored staffing issues within the DOC and how those failures led to the incident on Feb. 1.

Announcing the lawsuit, Mr. Neuberger claimed that his clients’ case would “paint a picture of widespread negligent behavior among top elected and appointed officials.”

However, the case never made it to trial. The state settled the lawsuit with 11 claimants in December 2017 for $7.55 million — believed to be the largest state-paid settlement in Delaware’s 230 year history.

Both parties agreed that the claims remain disputed and the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing by the state, nor a concession by the plaintiffs that their claims were unfounded.

In fact, Patricia May, a DOC counselor who was held hostage during the riot spoke out in an Associated Press interview in July explicitly blaming prison leadership.

“They knew it was going to happen. They did nothing,” she said in that interview. “When they put me in that building, they knew they were putting me in a dangerous situation.”

Echoing a claim made in the original complaint, Mr. Neuberger said there’s still a belief that Gov. Carney delayed a rescue attempt that may have saved Lt. Floyd’s life.

“We alleged in our complaint that, according to protocol, about one hour into the hostage taking, a rescue was about to be launched,” he said on Thursday. “But, Gov. Carney, we believe, astonishingly ordered the rescuers to stand down despite the best professional policing advice to the contrary. Perhaps some of that will come out at this trial.

Or perhaps the time of death will come out which would show whether a rescue one hour in could have saved Steven Floyd’s life which would mean that his blood is on the hands of Governor Carney if he stepped in and overruled the professionals.”

Gov. Carney has publicly denied that claim.

Mr. Neuberger also speculated that more specific details surrounding the nature of Lt. Floyd’s death will be revealed during the trial.

Horrific torture

“I expect the horrific up to 18-hour torture of Steve Floyd and the many gruesome autopsy photos I have seen will be revealed, at least to the jury,” he said. “The description of the about 50 stabs and cuts to his body may be revealed by pictures or testimony from the stand, as will the attempt to decapitate him in a middle-eastern fashion.

“Publicity of these facts will only further injure Steven Floyd’s family and set them back in their healing process.”

“Homicide by trauma” is the only official description the Delaware Division of Forensic Science ever released on the manner of Lt. Floyd’s death.

Opaque on their own examination of the riot, the DOC claimed an internal affairs investigation into the matter was “ongoing” last year. DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell declined to comment on the status of the investigation on Thursday.

Concern for victims

Without a death penalty, Mr. Neuberger said he worries that the trials are “futile” and may continue to cause harm to his clients.

“Our Democrat governor and Democrat-controlled Senate in the General Assembly refused to revive (the death penalty) in House Bill 125 in January despite the hopes of the Department of Justice,” said Mr. Neuberger. “So, in my opinion in this matter of great public concern, these criminal trials are a futile act which will only re-injure the family of Steven Floyd and my other hostage victim clients.

“The defendants are already serving life sentences, so what can be achieved by another conviction? Without a death penalty, we will have more murders of public safety officers in our state and justice will never be served for the victims of these killings.”

Of the two of the four inmates in the first group to stand trial Monday, Staats and Ayers are serving life sentences. Shankaras is serving seven years for robbery and Forney is serving 11 years for firearm and drug convictions.

However, Mr. Neuberger says his clients are ready to testify in the trial if called upon, despite any personal toll it may take.

“All my surviving clients feel it is their civic duty to testify if the state needs them on the witness stand to seek convictions for the murder of Steven Floyd,” he said. “So they are cooperating with the prosecution’s demand that they be available to testify. They do this at great personal risk to their continuing mental health and healing.

“Naturally, their anxiety level is high and their health care professionals agree with this and are watching them carefully to prepare them for the flashbacks and stress of reliving the nightmares they endured. I expect any one of them can have a major setback after having to prepare to testify or take the stand at trial.”

Specifically, he said he worries about the potential questioning his clients might experience on the stand.

“Who knows how rough the cross examination will be of each of them by a self-represented prisoner defendant or their lawyers?” said Mr. Neuberger.

Concern for inmates

Dover lawyer Stephen Hampton, who has been working on a class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates affected by the riot, is concerned about suspected coercion.

Specifically, he said he feels that the upcoming trial puts other inmates who occupied C Building during the riot but have not been charged with a crime under pressure.

“I have concern about the inmates not charged as defendants in the upcoming criminal trials who are being pressured by prosecutors to testify against the defendants,” he said. “This apparently involves taking inmates to the courthouse where a number of prosecutors or police officers tell them they can be made to testify whether they want to or not.

“This exposes these inmates to potential retaliation from other inmates who believe that the trip to the courthouse means they are cooperating with the prosecution.”

After receiving “hundreds” of letters from inmates after the uprising, Mr. Hampton wrote a letter to Gov. Carney in late March 2017. He asked that the DOC end its retaliatory “brutalization” and “torture” of the prison population.

Shortly afterward, the governor’s office chief legal counsel responded by referring the letter to the DOC as that agency is “completely responsible for the maintenance, supervision and administration of adult detention and correctional services and facilities of the state.”

Mr. Hampton claimed that DOC “abuse” continues and has likely resulted in testimony given under duress.

“All of these potential witnesses were treated horribly by the police and DOC officers who retook C Building,” he said. “They were beaten, kicked, threatened, sexually harassed and denied food, clothing and medical care for many weeks after the building was retaken.

“All the witnesses were treated as if they were the perpetrators of the revolt and any statements they gave were given under duress without the benefit of counsel. Certainly many of these witnesses might have felt compelled to testify in a way that would please the interrogators in the hope that this would keep them from suffering more abuse.”

The associated inmates are still missing property and have addressed grievances as well, Mr. Hampton claimed.

“Many of the inmates from C Building did not get their property back even when the items had been packed in their locker and had their names on it,” he said. “In addition, there has been no investigation of the abuse of these inmates even though the evidence that it happened is definitive.

“The state has done nothing for the inmates who were abused, most of whom, at least those still in Delaware prisons, are being treated worse than they were before the revolt over their poor treatment occurred.”

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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