Prosecution wraps up its case in prison riot trial

WILMINGTON — Presenting a recap of their case to the jury the prosecutors in the Vaughn prison riot criminal trial appeared to be about to rest Friday.

Deputy Attorneys General John Downs, Nichole Warner and Brian Robertson indicated to Judge William C. Carpenter Jr., that they will pass the reins over to the defense when the trial resumes after the Veterans Day holiday next week at the New Castle County Court House.

Eighteen inmates were charged in connection with the riot that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead. Sixteen of the inmates are facing murder charges and, along with two other prisoners, are also looking at kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting charges.

The indicted inmates are being tried separately in five groups. The first group consists of inmates Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of three counts of murder in the first degree.

Staats and Ayers have opted to defend themselves with the assistance of state-appointed counsel. Forney is being represented by attorney Ben Gifford.

Lead investigator testifies

During their final full day the prosecution called Sgt. David Weaver, the Delaware State Police lead investigator on the case, to the stand to tie earlier testimony back to investigators’ understanding of the sequence of events on Feb. 1 2017.

It is the second time Sgt. Weaver has given testimony during the trial, and he’s been a fixture in the courtroom throughout the trial — seated alongside the prosecutors.

Once again sketching the forensic and physical evidence investigators’ collected, Sgt. Weaver explained that very little of serious value to building the case was collected. Though suspected murder weapons — shanks, mop wringers and fire extinguishers — were collected, investigators were unable to forensically attach them to any suspects.

Upon entering C Building (the site of the riot), investigators found it “tainted” and in disarray — evidence was burnt, debris and garbage was scattered everywhere and much of the crime scene was under several inches of water due to a triggered fire suppression system.

Also, C Building didn’t have any interior camera installed, so investigators claimed to be short any photographic evidence.

Building the case

Thus, Sgt. Weaver explained to the jury that the bulk of the state’s case had to be built from recorded inmate phone calls, inmate letters and inmate eyewitness accounts of the incident.

However, even among the pool of 126 inmates housed in C Building, not all were helpful.

Thirty inmates didn’t provide statements and 72 more claimed they didn’t witness anything either because they confined themselves to their cells for the duration of the riot or because the inmates perpetrating the riot were wearing masks and gloves so they were unrecognizable. But, 24 did come forward and make statements, said Sgt. Weaver. Through the use of a “photo book” with images of all the inmates in the building, these witnesses pointing out who they recognized and what they observed them doing during the riot. Over a dozen of these witnesses testified in the trial over the last three weeks, sharing those same recollections with the jury.

Timeline of events

On Friday, Sgt. Weaver told the jury how a timeline of events was established. Upon taking over the investigation, he ordered the recordings of all 1,062 phone calls that were made from the prison on the day of the riot.

A specific phone call by an inmate named Anthony Morrow timestamped at 10:06 a.m. indicated roughly when the first assault on correctional officers began.

“During the phone call you can hear a commotion in the background, and around approximately 10:18 am. you can hear him explaining to the person he’s talking to what’s happening — that a correctional officer is being assaulted,” said Sgt. Weaver.

Around 10:22 someone can be heard in the background of Morrow’s phone call telling inmates to “lock in” (return to their cells and shut the door) — presumably one of the inmates participating in the riot, said Sgt. Weaver.

Weeks of testimony from both inmates and the victims themselves have painted a blurry portrait of the actual assault. There are several details that remain fairly consistent: it happened quickly, involved several masked inmates wielding weapons like shanks and mop wringers and resulted in the taking of four hostages and control of C Building.

The three correctional officers in the building, Lt. Steven Floyd, Joshua Wilkinson and Winslow Smith were simultaneously attacked, brutally beaten and were shoved into closets — where Lt. Floyd later succumbed to his injuries.

Shortly after 10:22, three maintenance workers who’d happened to have been in the basement came up the stairs to find a bloody scene and Lt. Floyd calling for help in the closet. After being approached by a shank-wielding inmate, they were able to escape back to the basement by threatening to splash the inmate with toxic chemicals in their possession. In the process, they reported a code one (assault on an officer) via their radios.

Around 10:33 a.m. a female correctional officer — presumably stationed in the Vaughn prison tower — is heard on the radio advising that the incident was a code three (major disturbance) and was “not a drill,” said Sgt. Weaver.

Co-currently, the building’s counselor was taken hostage, had her head covered and was kept in a cell for the duration of the riot.

While being taken hostage, Ms. May told investigators that she was able to log off her DOC employee account on her computer — records later showed that this occurred around 10:43 a.m.

Moments before 11 a.m. an unknown inmate voice was heard over the facility’s radios and an hours-long negotiation began, Sgt. Weaver said.

Eventually, around 2:15 p.m. Mr. Smith is released, alone, from C Building.

Nine inmates were released from C Building around 5:30 p.m. Mr. Wilkinson along with 27 more inmates were released just before 7:30 p.m., noted Sgt. Weaver.

At 10:55 p.m. the three maintenance workers that had been safely locked away in the basement were given instructions to escape through an attic door, crawled across the roof and down a ladder off the side of the building.

About 25 minutes after midnight, a final group of 15 inmates were released. Among the inmate “hostages” being released, were five that would eventually be indicted with participation in the riot — Abednego Baynes, Pedro Chairez, Royal Downs, Robert Hernandez and Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz.

Finally, just after 5 a.m. DOC and Delaware State Police tactical teams sieged the building, rescued Ms. May, found Lt. Floyd deceased and took 75 inmates into custody.

During their opportunity to cross-examine Sgt. Weaver, the defense continued with their strategy of harping on inconsistencies in inmate witnesses’ testimony.

The defense, with fairly consistent success, has sought to undermine each testimony by pointing out inconsistencies between what witnesses said in court versus the transcripts of earlier statements given to investigators.

Mr. Gifford specifically has hammered repeatedly on the point with several witnesses that only came forward with “names” for investigators after having been housed for several months in a high security building at Vaughn prison alongside others who had been in C Building during the riot — implying that their testimony may have been tainted by suggestion or coordination among the inmates themselves.

Another common tactic the defense has used is suggesting that the inmates were either coerced or persuaded into testifying in hopes that they’d gain leniency in their respective sentences.

One at a time, each defendant is expected to begin calling their witnesses starting next Tuesday.

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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