Prison expert questions ‘purity’ of investigation

WILMINGTON — “Prison expert” James Aiken was called to the stand Thursday to offer an expert opinion on “prison culture” in the ongoing trial to decide the fates of four of the 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the 2017 riot at Vaughn prison that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

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.

Called by Baynes’s defense attorneys Cleon Cauley and Saagar Shah, Mr. Aiken first presented his long list of credentials to the jury. Having 47 years of “corrections experience,” Mr. Aiken started his career as a prison counselor in South Carolina and climbed all the way to warden of the state’s women’s prison, he explained. He went on to become a corrections commissioner in Indiana and a director of corrections in the Virgin Islands with several other high-profile administrative positions in between before become a full-time consultant and subject matter expert.

Notably his experience was alleged to have included many criminal investigations that took place in prisons and even presiding over several prison hostage negotiations. In one instance, he’d ordered an inmate to be shot to death by a sniper after negotiations were unsuccessful, he said.

As a witness, Mr. Aiken was used by the defense to help illustrate three points to the jury:

•Inmates are well-known for cooperating with authorities if they believe they have something to gain from the interaction.

•In the case of a crime that takes place in a prison separating any potential witnesses and/or perpetrators is crucial to ensure the “purity” of the following investigation.

•Because of its suspect nature, testimony from inmates should be supported by empirical evidence.

Since the state’s sole piece of hard forensic evidence against the four charged men has been a DNA sample belonging to Miller found in the mop closet (where Lt. Floyd was thought to have been held hostage), the prosecution has had to rely almost entirely on cooperating inmate eyewitnesses who occupied C Building (the site of the riot) during the incident.

All four defenses have routinely suggested that these eyewitnesses have fabricated statements in order to receive favorable treatment by the state. Throughout the entire four-week trial, prosecutors have repeatedly hammered on the claim that “no deals” were made, and there are “no promises” for inmates testifying in the trial.

The defense has also repeatedly accused the state of tainting their investigation by allowing the 126-inmate population of C Building to commingle at various prison buildings they were moved to after the riot was quelled. The defense’s implication is that because both potential witnesses and perpetrators may have had the chance to coordinate “stories” and share key details about the riot, their testimony is suspect.

On cross-examination, Deputy Attorney General John Downs asked Mr. Aiken about other potential motives that inmate eyewitnesses could have to testify such as: feeling victimized by the riot, wanting justice or strong religious convictions. Mr. Aiken conceded that all those were variables to be considered, but insisted that their testimony should still be supported by empirical evidence.

As for housing the inmates together in the wake of the riot, Mr. Downs grilled Mr. Aiken about his specific knowledge of Delaware’s prison capacity and logistical ability to promptly separate 126 inmates from one another.

“Prisons don’t function in an ideal world,” Mr. Downs said, seeming to forward the argument that conditions beyond investigators’ control made the best conditions impossible.

However, Mr. Aiken persisted, saying that proper planning and “fail safes” in well-run prisons enable staff to be flexible in the face of an emergency.

“When you put the same inmate population together like that and they’re able to interact, the probability that their testimony will be contaminated increases,” said Mr. Aiken.

Defense about to rest

The final defense to make their case was Bramble’s. On Thursday, Tom Pederson, Bramble’s defense attorney, called five witnesses to the stand — including Bramble himself.

Three were inmates who all claimed to have seen Bramble during the riot and testified that he wasn’t involved. Several of their statements were in direct contradiction with the state’s inmate eyewitnesses who’d claimed earlier in the trial to have seen Bramble involved in perpetrating the riot.

Taking the stand himself, Bramble claims to have spent the majority of the riot in his cell. He vehemently denies being involved in any of the crimes he stands accused of.

The prosecution will have their chance to cross-examine him this morning.

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

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