Prison riot prosecution strategy questioned

WILMINGTON — So far, with two trials complete, only one inmate accused of perpetrating the 2017 prison riot has been convicted of murder.

Some stakeholders are raising questions about the strength of the state’s case given that outcome.

The latest in the four-trial series to determine the fates of 18 inmates charged in connection to the riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead ended last Monday with no convictions.

Of the four inmates on trial — John Bramble, Abednego Baynes, Kevin Berry and Obadiah Miller — the jury acquitted Baynes and Berry and returned several “no decision” verdicts for Miller and Bramble. All were accused of murder, kidnapping, riot, assault and conspiracy, but after hearing the state’s case against the men, the jury of 11 women and one man were deadlocked on Miller’s murder and riot counts and Brambles assault and riot charges — after deliberating for nearly five days.

In the first trial, which wrapped up last November, the jury returned verdicts of guilty for Jarreau Ayers and Dwayne Staats and innocent for Deric Forney. Ayers picked up convictions for riot, kidnapping, assault and conspiracy. Staats was convicted on all of those charges plus murder.

Leaving the New Castle County Courthouse on Monday, Bramble’s defense attorney, Tom Pederson, suggested that the state’s success in seeking convictions merited a rethink of strategy.

“Given the two sets of verdicts now, I think the state really has to give their case some serious thought and serious consideration,” he said. “The witnesses they have called have told so many different stories and there are so many contradictions that I don’t know how they will ever convince any jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Others agree

Two more attorneys, one who sued the state on behalf of the riot’s victims and another who’s suing the state on behalf of inmates claiming they were abused during the quelling of the riot, agree.

To all questions related to the ongoing trials, the Department of Justice has given a resounding: “no comment.”

Wilmington Attorney Thomas Neuberger called the prosecutors’ task of obtaining convictions on the remaining nine inmates awaiting trial “impossible.” Mr. Neuberger represented Lt. Floyd’s family and the survivors of the riot in a lawsuit against the state in 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.

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 history.

“Of course, the prior Attorney General had to try to obtain justice for (victims) and their families by bringing criminal prosecutions,” Mr. Neuberger said last week. “But the task was impossible. Due to Governors Markell and Minner’s follies, there were no cameras in the prison to record who did what and when to whom. So there was no objective forensic or other evidence to prove a murder charge. Instead our prior AG had to rely on the oral testimony of convicted criminals. No jury would ever regularly convict all the murderers and their co-conspirators on such oral testimony riddled with inconsistencies and unreliability. As convicted felons they are assumed to be liars. The state is lucky with two trials to have gotten one (murder) conviction.”

Lack of strong evidence?

Bemoaning the lack of convincing evidence, Mr. Neuberger suggested that the state reconsider their strategy.

“I am satisfied that justice was attempted for all of my clients and nothing more can be done by the office of the AG,” he said. “There cannot be justice for the loss of Stephen Floyd’s life. If asked, I would suggest to our new AG, Kathy Jennings, that the task is impossible. Thank you for trying, but now devote your limited resources to other murder cases.”

On the other end of the table, Stephen Hampton, a Dover attorney representing the more than 100 inmates housed in C Building (the site of the riot) during the incident, agrees.

The 80-page complaint he filed late last year alleges “inhumane conditions” at Vaughn, and states that for many years prior to the riot prison personnel “illegally abused, mistreated and tortured inmates with virtually nothing being done by their JTVCC (Vaughn prison) or DOC supervisors, to stop them.”

He alleges that the DOC’s handling of the riot scuttled the ensuing investigation.

“All of the criminal prosecutions against inmates arising from the revolt on Feb. 1 were irreparably harmed when correctional officers and police went into C building on Feb. 2 and began to systemically torture non-resisting inmates,” said Mr. Hampton. “Beating and abusing all the inmates before taking any statements, means all statements were taken under duress, and in most cases involuntarily. The taint on these statements cannot be undone by the AG’s office. Any future trials will be marked by inconsistent testimony like the last trial. Yet, the state seems intent on spending millions of dollars on tainted prosecutions, when most of the charges should be dropped.”

Given the ongoing litigation, the DOJ and Governor’s Office have refused to comment on Mr. Hampton’s lawsuit. During the just-concluded trial, a correctional officer who was part of the response team responsible of retaking C Building during the riot admitted that force was used on inmates, but claimed it was only used to the extent needed to gain compliance from those who resisted. During the trial, the vast majority of inmate witnesses who testified — even those doing so on the prosecution’s behalf — claimed to have been beaten during the retaking of the building, regardless of their compliance.

Changing strategy?

Not all stakeholders want the state to abandon its pursuit. Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said the prosecution ought to “revisit its strategy and try to bring a better case forward,” but he is hoping that it remains resolute in pressing its charges against the remaining nine inmates and revisits the no decision verdicts on Bramble and Miller.

“They absolutely should continue and follow this through,” he said. “But, I’ve sat in on a lot of the trial and saw for myself that they need to bring a more convincing case. So they should take the time they have now and revisit everything to make sure they’re laying out the best case possible for the future juries. All I can say on behalf of the correctional officers in the state of Delaware who lost a brother, is that it’s going to be hard for us to stomach this if they don’t get to the bottom of it and hold the perpetrators accountable.”

It’s unclear what changes, if any, the DOJ will make ahead of the next trial or if they plan to pursue the no decision verdicts against Miller and Bramble. However, the prosecution did drop some charges against the four inmates in the last trial prior to its start and the trial schedule has been significantly stretched out since the verdicts were delivered on Monday.

According to the DOJ, the “intentional murder” count lodged against the four inmates who just stood trial was dropped. The “nolle prosequi” — formal notice of abandoning all or part of a suit or action — was entered onto the record “verbally” on Jan. 3 — prior to the beginning of the trial. However, it appears the counts weren’t officially dropped until Feb. 4 when paper copies were filed.

“The decision was based on the evidence expected to be introduced at trial against the defendants scheduled for trial,” DOJ spokesman Carl Kanefsky said earlier in February.

Notably, the intentional murder count was the only one to have been eluded by all three inmates who stood trial in November.

It’s unclear whether the same murder count will be dropped against the nine remaining inmates awaiting trials.

“Decisions about charges in the upcoming trials will be made at the appropriate time,” said Mr. Kanefsky.

Trial start dates for the remaining two trials were originally March 11 and May 6 respectively, but shortly after verdicts were delivered this was bumped out to May 6 and Oct. 21.

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