Prison riot trial: Prosecution on track to rest case next week

WILMINGTON — Firmly in its third week, the ongoing trial to decide the fate of four inmates accused of perpetrating the February 2017 Vaughn prison riot continued on Wednesday.

After having called hostage survivors, first responders, criminal investigators and state forensic experts to testify in the first two weeks, the prosecution has spent the last several court sessions calling a long string of inmate eyewitnesses to the stand.

If they continue at their current pace, the prosecution is likely to hand the reins over to the defense sometime next week.

Of the original 18 inmates charged in connection with the riot that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead, 13 men await verdicts. The first three inmates to stand trial — Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney — were handed theirs on Nov. 20 last year. The jury found Staats guilty of all charges except for intentional first-degree murder, Ayers guilty of all charges except the three murder counts and Forney not guilty.

One of the inmates, Royal Downs, pleaded guilty to all charges before the first trial started, and another, Kelly Gibbs, killed himself in November.

The four inmates currently standing trial in Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s New Castle County courtroom — John Bramble, Obadiah Miller, Kevin Berry and Abednego Baynes — are facing charges of riot, kidnapping, conspiracy, assault and murder.

Each one of the four defenses will have an opportunity to call its own witnesses to the stand once the prosecution wraps up. It’s unclear how many each plans to call, but if the first trial was any indication: not many.

In the first trial all three separate defenses wrapped up the same day the prosecution officially rested. Afterward, closing arguments were offered and the jury began deliberations that went on for three days — leading to a start to finish timespan of about four weeks for the first trial.

However long it takes, the current jurors may struggle with the same concepts that gave the first jury pause — despite the fact that the individual cases are quite different.

At one point during deliberation last November, the jury even noted to the judge that they’d reached an “impasse” and one juror had announced their intention to not return the following day, even if a verdict was not reached.

However, at the final hour, the jury found consensus and delivered verdicts on all charges.

Several requests for clarification during the process suggested the jury had been struggling to navigate 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. Much of the prosecutions case against the charged inmates falls under the umbrella of this principle.

Relying on Inmate eyewitnesses

Accomplice liability aside, the jury is also likely to struggle with the prosecution’s dearth of hard evidence. Although a large assortment of suspected weapons were taken from the crime scene, no usable prints were pulled from them by forensic experts.

The state’s sole piece of DNA evidence — implicating Miller — was showcased on Jan. 17. The sample provided to the state’s lab was a blood swab pulled from the mop closet Lt. Floyd was held hostage in during the riot. However, it was explained that Lt. Floyd was the majority contributor to the sample while Miller was only found to be a minor contributor. It’s not uncommon that a single crime scene sample can contain genetic material from several individuals.

During cross-examination, Miller’s defense attorney, Tony Figliola, attempted to undercut the sample by suggesting it could be “touch DNA” such as sweat, skin cell and the like, placed there circumstantially.

He went after the state’s only piece of physical evidence against his client. First asking Ms. Rothwell if she could be certain the blood belonged to either Lt. Floyd or Miller, he then asked if it was possible that Miller’s “touch DNA” such as sweat, skin cells and the like, could have been in the room. Ms. Rothwell noted that because the sample returned two separate DNA results, it was impossible to say for certain who’s blood it was. Figliola has noted to the jury previously that before the riot, Miller had been a “tier man,” someone with prison janitorial responsibilities, that would have put him in frequent contact with the mop closet and supplies contained therein — suggesting that it wouldn’t be uncommon to find his touch DNA in the closet.

Instead, jurors have had to again rely on the testimony of inmate eyewitnesses who occupied C Building (the site of the riot) during the incident. Though the prosecution has no shortage of these eyewitnesses to call, defense attorneys have had varying degrees of success painting their recounting of the event as contradictory, inconsistent or suspect.

The copious notes jurors have been observed taking on their court-provided notebooks will no doubt be put to use before heading into deliberations.

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