Prison riot trial goes to jury

WILMINGTON — A jury of 11 women and one man began deliberating Tuesday in the trial of four inmates charged with murder in the 2017 riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

On trial are four of the 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the prison uprising that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

Facing charges of riot, assault, kidnapping, conspiracy and murder are John Bramble, Abednego Baynes, Kevin Berry and Obadiah Miller. This trial, the second in connection with the riot, has lasted five weeks with lawyers wrapping up closing arguments on Tuesday. The jury heard the final closing argument from Bramble’s defense attorney Tom Pederson in the morning.

Like the three defense closing statements before his, Mr. Pederson went after the quality of state’s investigation into the deadly riot and the evidence prosecutors presented against his client.

First, Mr. Pederson attacked a lack of physical evidence, noting that they the Delaware State Police used outdated photographs for witnesses to attempt to identify perpetrators, there was no video footage of the incident and a small fraction of the evidence collected from the crime scene was actually sent to state labs for forensic analysis.

Lt. Steven Floyd

Calling the charges against the indicted inmates “throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks justice,” Mr. Pederson said the prosecution’s case wasn’t respectful to the dignity of the late Lt. Floyd and the other riot survivors.

Chief among his points though — as it has been for the duration of the trial — was the suspect nature of “contradictory” testimony given by the state’s inmate eyewitnesses.

One by one, putting their images on the projector for the jury, Mr. Pederson revisited each piece of testimony against his client and attempted to illustrate how they conflict with one another and sometimes — through the use of transcripts of earlier statements given — with themselves.

He also claimed the testimony was subject to being tainted because most inmates from C Building (the site of the riot) were housed with one another in the wake of the incident, giving them ample opportunity to discuss it.

“We don’t have places to put everyone, I understand that some things were outside their control,” said Mr. Pederson. “But they don’t get the benefit of that doubt — that’s no excuse.”

Pointing to the jury, Mr. Pederson said according to the state’s standards for the case the jurors themselves were two inmate testimonies away from being suspects themselves. Referencing Deputy Attorney General John Downs’s closing argument from Monday, Mr. Pederson claimed the state failed to provide any compelling reason for believing the testimony of their witnesses.

“He didn’t explain it, he won’t explain it, he can’t explain it,” said Mr. Pederson. “They can’t tell you why any of these witnesses are reliable and trustworthy.”

Although throughout the trial the prosecution maintained that no promises were made with inmate eyewitnesses regarding favorable treatment in exchange for testimony, Mr. Pederson claimed that the witnesses nevertheless believed they’d be getting something in return for their cooperation.

“No promises is what’s being said — but what’s said is just enough to keep hope alive,” said Mr. Pederson. “When you’re destined to die in jail, the only way out being in a pine box, that little bit of hope is enough. But aren’t we interested in the truth here?”

In his rebuttal, Deputy Attorney General Brian Robertson hit back, noting that while their case was built mostly on inmate testimony, the eyewitness accounts corroborate one another and the circumstances under which the riot took place. Addressing the apparent contradictions,

Mr. Robertson claimed that each witness viewed the incident from different perspectives, the assaults were quick and perpetrators sought to “fall back” once the takeover was complete.

“This was a planned hit-and-run,” he said. “The action culminated in a seven minute period.”

None of the four inmates on trial are currently serving life sentences, but they face life in prison if found guilty on all charges by the jury.

According to the DOC, Miller, 26, was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter in 2010. He was scheduled to be released this October before being charged with crimes associated with the riot.

Bramble, 29, was sentenced to 40 years in 2013 for home invasion, assault and firearm charges, says the DOC. He was scheduled to be released in 2048.

Berry, 28, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2009 on robbery and firearm convictions. Before being charged with crimes related to the riot, his expected release date was May 2022.

Baynes, 26, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2010 for second-degree murder, said the DOC. He was scheduled to be released in 2025 before being charged in connection with the riot.

After closing arguments finished on Tuesday, the court read the jury their instructions — giving them a more detailed understanding of each charge against the four men. They were then excused to deliberate. As of Tuesday evening, they had not reached a verdict.

In the first trial, that delivered verdicts late last November, the jury deliberated for three straight days. How long this jury will take to enter their verdicts remains to be seen.

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