Prison riot survivors testify at inmates’ trial

WILMINGTON — Correctional Officers Joshua Wilkinson and Winslow Smith, two survivors of the Feb. 1, 2017, riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center took the stand on Tuesday to testify in the criminal trial stemming from the incident.

Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Smith who were both working in C Building (the site of the riot) on Feb. 1 were taken hostage, brutally beaten and later released.

Despite suffering from emotional repercussions such as “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) and “paranoia,” both men maintained their composure on the stand and provide witness testimony for the jury.

Though media attention on the case dwindled slightly in the second day of the high-stakes trial, the large court room on the 8th floor was still fairly full with interested onlookers, well-wishers and family members.

Top Department of Corrections leadership including Commissioner Perry Phelps, Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead and Bureau Chief of Prisons Steven Wesley were all in attendance for the second day in a row. DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell declined to comment on the proceedings. Correctional Officers Association of Delaware president Geoff Klopp also attended the trial.

Sixteen inmates are facing murder charges, and along with two other prisoners, are also looking at counts of kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting in the case.

The inmates are being tried separately in five groups before Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. at the New Castle County Court House. The first group consists of inmates Roman Shankaras, Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of murdering Lt. Steven Floyd during the riot.

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.

Although responsible for different sections of C Building on Feb. 1 2017, both Mr. Wilkinson’s and Mr. Winslow’s experiences of the event are similar.

Mr. Winslow, who’d been an correctional officer for almost 11 years as of the riot, said he was what was known as a “floater,” meaning he was often assigned to duties at a different building almost every day. As such, he’d only served a total of about five days at C Building between October 2016 and February 2017. Having just graduated from the Department of Corrections academy in late 2016, Mr. Wilkinson was still in the first few months of his career as a correctional officer and, more specifically, his third day working at C Building at the time of the incident.

Because of their short tenure at the posting, both men noted during their testimonies that they found it difficult to recognize the names, faces and voices of the majority of the C Building population.

Defendants guarded by nine correctional officers in the courtroom during the trial. (Special to Delaware State News/Sam Ford)

Most prominently, both men noted in their testimonies that at no time during the riot were they able to discern, for certain, any direct participants in the incident — owing to the general chaos of the attack and the claim that the inmates covered their faces with masks/knit hats and clothing during the incident.

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Wilkinson were plaintiffs in a civil suit against the state arising from the riot that was settled in late-2017 for $7.5 million. 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.

Smith’s testimony

On Tuesday Mr. Smith, now 37, told the jury that the day of the riot had started like any ordinary day but quickly spiraled out of control around 10:20 a.m. when he was letting a group of inmates back in from their time in the recreation yard. He noted that as he opened the door, he was suddenly punched in the face by an inmate. Turning to face his attacker, he was then struck hard in the head from behind, he testified.

Suddenly, several inmates wearing knit caps over their faces began beating him to the ground, he added. Around the same time, he recalls seeing Lt. Floyd and Mr. Wilkinson also engaged in a melee with inmates further up the hall.

Able to briefly extricate himself, Mr. Smith recalls attempting to help the building’s counselor, Patricia May, who he observed being taken hostage with a knife to her throat. But he says that inmates once again subdued and beat him, eventually handcuffing him and depositing him in a supply closet with Mr. Wilkinson.

From the vantage point of the “pitch black” closet, Mr. Smith said he was able to discern very little of what was taking place in C Building and has difficulty remembering how long he was interred there. Both men were severely injured he said.

“I just remember tapping him a couple times to make sure he (Mr. Wilkinson) was still alive and he’d tap me a couple times to see if I was still alive,” said Mr. Smith.

He recalls hearing the fire alarm in the building sound and subsequently get turned off and the inmates briefly push into the closet to throw a flaming blanket on the two men. However, they were able to extinguish it.

Mr. Smith also recalls inmates demanding his computer password so they could access a computer in the building, which he says he provided.

Eventually, that afternoon, Mr. Smith was released. He said his head was covered and he was ushered from the building and sent out to the yard where he connected with DOC personnel.

Mr. Smith noted that during the attack his hands were badly injured, he sustained a concussion and suffered a cervical spine injury. Since the incident he notes that he’s suffered from continued PTSD symptoms, migraines, occasional loss of balance, paranoia and fear of crowds. He says he hasn’t been able to work since the incident.

When it was the defense’s turn to cross examine Mr. Smith, the focus was primarily on Mr. Smith’s inability to properly identify any of his assailants and how many statements he provided to investigators.

By Mr. Smith’s count, he provided an accounting of the incident to the DOC and Delaware State Police shortly after being released on Feb. 1, and had a single follow-up at his home for a DNA test, but no further questioning.

Wilkinson’s testimony

Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Wilkinson notes being taken by surprise by inmates who’d masked or otherwise obscured their faces on Feb. 1, 2017.

“I had just closed the door when I heard footsteps of multiple offenders coming up behind me, by the time I turned around, they were on me,” he said.

Mr. Wilkinson says between 8 and 12 inmates attacked him. He recalls exchanging punches with them for up to a minute, until he was struck in the head with a blunt object that he suspects knocked him unconscious. Though not certain, he believes the object was a mop ringer because of the sound it made when it was dropped on the ground.

He said he was then cuffed with his own handcuffs and dragged to a supply closet where he was soon joined by Mr. Smith.

Mr. Wilkinson said he also found it difficult to understand what was taking place outside the closet while locked in. But he recalls hearing shouting, smelling smoke and hearing flames.

He also remembers hearing Lt. Floyd scream as he was repeatedly beaten. Although he was unsure for how long, he said the beatings “went on for awhile,” until he heard nothing coming from the adjacent mop closet where Lt. Floyd had been put.

He also recalled giving inmates his computer password after it was demanded. After about 10 hours of being held hostage, Mr. Wilkinson was also released with a group of inmates.

He suffered a “cracked orbital,” broken nose, puncture wounds around the throat and forehead, a fractured skill and a concussion. Because of continued PTSD symptoms anxiety and other emotional complications he too has been unable to work since the incident.

During the defense’s cross-examination of Mr. Wilkinson, he was pressed for details on statements he’d provided to investigators the night of the incident after being released.

Making reference to a statement Mr. Wilkinson allegedly gave to the Delaware State Police, Mr. Antoine asked if inmates had told him that they’d killed Lt. Floyd because he treated them poorly. Mr. Antoine also asked if Mr. Wilkinson had said in the same statement that Lt. Floyd had had an “ego problem” and was “rude.”

At first denying that he’d made any of the statements, Mr. Wilkinson eventually noted that he wasn’t entirely sure what was said.

“I was receiving some heavy medical treatment and had lost a lot of blood,” he said.

State challenged

Tuesday morning was consumed with the prosecution continuing to present its evidence for the jury. Homicide crime scene investigator Cpl. Roger Cresto’s presentation was marred by an inaccurate evidence map and inconsistent testimony.

During the prosecution’s questioning of Mr. Cresto, a truncated map of C Building was used to identify the locations of evidence collected immediately after the riot.

Dozens of items allegedly used as weapons including “shanks,” handmade knives, mop ringers, fire extinguishers and rods were presented to the jury for inspection and a brief explanation.

However, during the defense’s cross-examination of Cpl. Cresto, it was revealed that the map was inaccurate. The defense attorney representing inmate Forney, Mr. Gifford, pressed Cpl. Cresto on the details of the map’s layout, suggesting that the map only displayed the beginning portion of each of C Building’s three wings.

At first saying the map was “not to scale,” Cpl. Cresto eventually admitted that it was, in fact, not an accurate representation of where the labeled evidence was actually found despite having presented it to the jury as such.

Evidence that was found outside of the truncated map’s scope appeared to have been arbitrarily moved closer to the center of the building in order to have it all appear on the map without making proper notation.

Ayers and Mr. Gifford also repeatedly pressed Cpl. Cresto on how the decision was made to have certain alleged weapons and pieces of evidence tested for DNA instead of others. Cpl. Cresto said the decisions were made collaboratively between Delaware State Police investigators and the prosecution, but failed to provide and explanation regarding the portion selected for testing.

During the prosecution’s follow-up questioning of Cpl. Cresto, he stated that cost and volume of evidence submitted to the Delaware Department of Forensic Science (DFS) for testing was a consideration.

However, he immediately contradicted the statement when pressed once again by Mr. Gifford to say that expected cost would not have prevented him from submitting evidence to be tested.

“Did you have any reason to believe that evidence you submitted to DFS wouldn’t be tested?” asked Mr. Gifford.

“No,” said Cpl. Cresto.

The prosecution is expected to call several more correctional officer witnesses to the stand today.

 

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