Prison riot trial: Prosecution rests case; motions for acquittal denied

WILMINGTON — After just more than three weeks of presenting its case in the second trial to decide the fate of the 18 inmates charged with the 2017 Vaughn prison riot, the prosecution rested Tuesday morning.

The first trial wrapped up last November and resulted in inmate Deric Forney’s acquittal, Jarreau Ayers’s conviction on riot, assault, kidnapping and conspiracy and Dwayne Staats conviction on the same plus murder.

Currently on trial are John Bramble, Abednego Baynes, Kevin Berry and Obadiah Miller — all accused of riot, assault, kidnapping, conspiracy and murder.

On Tuesday morning, all four defenses made individual motions for acquittal based on insufficient evidence against their clients. Baynes’s, Bramble’s and Berry’s attorneys asked for all charges to be dropped. Miller’s attorney asked for the conspiracy charge be dropped — acknowledging that the state’s evidence against his client was more substantial.

All four lawyers’ arguments rested on the assertion that the state’s inmate eyewitness testimonies were broadly contradictory and inconsistent with one another.

“We can’t expect a reasonable jury to untangle the mess that has been presented to them,” said Bramble’s defense attorney Tom Pederson. “All the testimonies given were conflicted and contradictory, these charges should be dismissed.”

Motions denied

However, Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. denied the motions outright. While acknowledging that there “may be inconsistencies,” the judge said they weren’t sufficient for acquittal, and that it was something defense attorneys would have to argue for to the jury.

The first defense to be mounted was Berry’s. His attorney, Andy Witherell called an inmate who claimed to have spent most of the 19-hour hostage stand-off at Berry’s side and his old cellmate to the stand. Both claimed not to see Berry involved in perpetrating the riot.

Kevin Berry

On cross-examination, prosecutors attempted to demonstrate that each man wasn’t observing Berry for the entire duration of the riot — particularly at the point of the initial assaults on officers.

Mr. Witherell also put an inmate eyewitness on the stand who’s testimony, if believed by the jury, would undercut the claims of one of the state’s key inmate witnesses against Berry, and several of the other charged inmates.

The state’s witness, Henry Anderson, claims to have seen the initial assault on officers from his cell door and was able to identify several of the perpetrators, including Berry. But, Mr. Witherell’s witness (Anderson’s cellmate at the time of the riot) claims that Anderson was actually sleeping during the entire altercation.

Lastly, Berry opted to have his attorney put him on the stand so he could “tell his side of the story.”

In his testimony, Berry characterized himself as an inmate at the tail end of a 14 year sentence (having just over 2 years remaining) who kept mostly to himself and a small group of “peoples.” He claims to have had nothing to do with the planning and commission of the riot, having stayed in his cell, and then later a friend’s cell for the majority of the siege.

“I wasn’t with it,” he said. “Everything on the demand list was basically for people who have a lot of time (long sentences). Those demands don’t have anything to do with me. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be charged with anything I’m charged with — they (prosecutors) know that. I didn’t do nothing.”

During cross-examination prosecutors drew the jury’s attention to a statement Berry had made immediately after the riot when questioned by investigators that was inconsistent with the testimony he’d just given. Berry claimed the statement was purposely fabricated because he didn’t want to cooperate with the state after just having been violently beaten during the recapture of C Building (the site of the riot).

Berry’s defense was concluded by early afternoon.

‘We got control’

Returning to the courtroom for the first time since his conviction in November, Ayers had a surprising shift in tone on Tuesday from his original testimony in the first trial.

Ayers was called as a witness by Tony Figliola, Miller’s defense attorney.

During his testimony, Ayers explained how he had only been in C Building for several months before the riot took place. Describing the building as “bubbling over” with tensions between guards and inmates even before he arrived, he claims there were several “peaceful protests” beforehand intended to draw attention to substandard living conditions.

Though he admitted to have advance knowledge that “something” was going to happen in C Building during his testimony in the first trial, but Ayers had distanced himself from a planning role.

“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen before the riot, but I knew something was going to happen,” Ayers said back in November. “But, I never kidnapped nobody. Never assaulted nobody. Never killed nobody.”

However, on Tuesday — post-conviction — he claims to have had a clearer understanding of what was planned. He was also a lot more comfortable with the pronoun “we” in discussing actions taken by the perpetrators of the riot.

Ayers told the jury that he, Royal Downs and Staats planned a building-wide protest in which inmates would refuse to come in from the recreation yard when called by the guards. But, if fellow inmates failed to adhere to the plan for fear of consequences, they had a contingency plan in place that involved “taking over the building.”

Downs, originally charged with conspiracy, riot, kidnapping and assault, pleaded guilty and has acted as a key witness for the state against many of his co-defendants, including Ayers.

“If everyone didn’t stay outside, basically, certain people were going to activate — going to activate and proceed with the takeover of the building,” said Ayers during his testimony.

On Tuesday he described a much more deliberate, active role in the riot saying things like: “we got control of the building” and ‘we were in control.”

Though he still denies being a part of any violence and “physically” restraining hostages, he said he was occupied with “controlling the floor” during the riot and “getting people together who were going to leave.”

Ayers was also intent to name fellow inmates this time around as well. He claimed that he witnessed inmates Kelly Gibbs and Abdul-Hafid As-Salafi assaulting Lt. Floyd.

Gibbs, also charged with perpetrating the riot, killed himself last November shortly after entering a guilt plea. Reportedly Gibbs left a suicide note that confessed to the crime and attempted to clear the names of some of his co-defendants. Judge Carpenter ruled the note as inadmissible evidence on Monday. As-Salafi was also another key witness against the charged inmates.

Ayers began to make a particularly damaging suggestion about Downs before being cut short by an objection from the prosecution. He’d begun to say that Downs was released with a group of hostages around midnight, just after “Floyd died” — indicating he’d lingered long enough in C Building to make sure that was the case.

“He (Downs) told me they were putting together a group of people to leave, but stopped and basically said Floyd has seen him so…” Ayers said before being interrupted.

The prosecution is expected to cross examine Ayers today. Staats is also expected to return to the stand as a witness for Miller’s defense.

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