One of three inmates found guilty of murder in Vaughn prison trial

Dwayne Staats

WILMINGTON — After a nearly five-week trial, the verdicts for three of the 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the deadly Vaughn prison riot last year are in. The jury found Dwayne Staats guilty of all charges except for intentional first-degree murder, Jarreau Ayers guilty of all charges except murder and Deric Forney not guilty.

Ayers, Staats and Forney were the first of five groups of the charged inmates to be tried — the subsequent groups will stand trial in the coming months. All three stood accused of 11 charges each — three counts of murder related to the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd, four counts of kidnapping, two counts of assault, riot and conspiracy.

The courtroom was dead quiet as the jury’s foreperson responded “guilty” or “not guilty” to each charge as they were listed by the court clerk. That was perhaps due to Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. stern instruction immediately prior. Addressing a courtroom full of family members of the accused, Department of Correction personnel and other members of the public, Judge Carpenter demanded complete silence and warned that if anyone were to “embarrass” or make any of the jurors uncomfortable they’d be immediately thrown out of the court room.

“I will not tolerate any reaction,” he said. “You may not say anything. There are six officers at the back of the court room whose job it is to pick you up and throw you out if you do.”

After the verdict was delivered, Forney’s defense attorney Ben Gifford said the state offered “hardly any evidence” against his client and the was the acquittal was the “right result.” Referencing the inmate eyewitness accounts brought by the prosecution during the trial, Mr. Gifford noted that the jury would have had to believe suspect testimony.

“If the jury believed these two inmates, who had some credibility issues, in my opinion, it was kind of an all or nothing verdict,” he said.

Ayers and Staats, both already serving life sentences for murder, sat relatively stoic as their verdicts were delivered. Forney, serving 11 years for firearm charges, appeared glassy-eyed and greatly relieved when his acquittal was announced. Both Staats and Ayers had opted to defend themselves during the trial, but they were assigned standby counsel attorneys Peter Veith and Patrick Collins respectively.

Commenting on the trial broadly, Mr. Vieth, agreeing with Mr. Gifford, said Forney’s acquittal was “obviously the right decision” considering the dearth of evidence brought against him by the state. He also called Ayers’ acquittal of murder “appropriate.”

Jarreau Ayers

“As for Ayers and Staats, we’ll look at their appellate issues and see where we go from there,” he added.

Without offering much comment, Mr. Collins simply extended Mr. Ayers’ appreciation for the jury’s “hard work, dedication and sacrifice” in the case.

For their part, DOC administration thanked the jury, Department of Justice and the Delaware State Police for their work on the trial. Appearing to have mixed feelings after the verdicts were handed down on Tuesday night, DOC commissioner Perry Phelps took a long pause when asked if the outcome provided justice for Lt. Floyd.

“I don’t know how to answer that right now,” he said. “I believe the jury came to a conclusion, and we respect their decision.”

Later in the evening, the DOC released a statement saying the verdict was a “long-awaited step toward healing and closure.”

As of Tuesday night, it was unclear precisely what effect the verdicts will have on each inmate’s sentence, but it’s expected that Forney will be released from prison once the remaining time of his original sentence is served.

New Castle County Chief Staff Attorney Linda Carmichael noted that as of Tuesday, the sentencing date was unknown.

Almost impasse

After three straight days of deliberation, it seemed likely that the jury would be unable to come to consensus on several charges. In fact, even the judge was under the impression that the jury would be delivering only a partial verdict until moments before the foreperson began listing them.

Earlier on Tuesday, the jury notified Judge Carpenter that they’d reached an “impasse” in deliberation. A letter to the judge explained that jury could not agree on some of the verdicts — apparently one juror had announced their intention to not return on Wednesday even if a verdict was not reached.

Calling the jury into the court, Judge Carpenter informed them that they were free to return the verdicts they had reached a decision on. However, he encouraged the jury to try to spend the rest of the day discussing the particular verdicts that were still in contention before addressing the court again.

Deric Forney

“I ask that you continue until the end of the day,” he said. “If by then you haven’t made progress the court will take the verdicts you have reached.”

Several requests for clarification on Monday suggested that the jury had been having difficulty navigating the concept of “accomplice liability.” Broadly, accomplice liability enables a person to be held criminally responsible for acts committed by a different person if they aided, assisted or encouraged the commission of the crime.

Moments before the jury read off their verdicts around 5 p.m., the judge seemed ready to hear an incomplete set of verdicts until the foreperson suddenly spoke up.

“We actually came to consensus on all three,” she said.

After the jury read the verdicts, Judge Carpenter thanked them for their dedication and diligence — adding that from seeing their notes, he could tell that they’d taken their responsibility seriously and delivered well thought out verdicts.

The remaining four groups containing the remaining 15 inmates are expected to take place over the coming months. New juries will be selected for each.

 

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

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