Prosecutors: Defendant played pivotal role in Vaughn prison riot

WILMINGTON — With the first week of the ongoing Vaughn prison riot trial done, it appears the prosecution will continue to push the assertion that the defendant — Roman Shankaras — played a pivotal role in organizing and facilitating the deadly 2017 incident.

Deputy Attorneys General Nichole Warner, John Downs and Brian Robertson leaned heavily on both their key witness and primary piece of evidence against Shankaras during the first few days of the trial.

According to their opening statement they believe that their evidence against Shankaras will show that although he may not have committed violence personally, he was responsible for the violent riot and ensuing murder.

The key witness, Royal Downs is himself one of the 18 inmates originally indicted for perpetrating the riot. He accepted a plea deal before the trials started and has testified for the prosecution in both of the first two trials.

Three inmates were tried last October — only one of whom was found guilty for murder. Four more inmates were tried earlier this year. Two were acquitted and the other two had several “no decision” verdicts returned.

Shankaras, standing trial alone, is accused of riot, murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and assault. Downs, who testified on Tuesday and Wednesday, called Shankaras a “puppet master” and claimed that he helped plan the takeover of C Building (the site of the incident) and managed the 19-hour standoff that ended in correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd’s death.

Roman Shankaras

On Wednesday, the prosecutors read two “kites” (prison letters) aloud in court, having Downs explain them to the jury line-by-line.

It’s alleged that the letters were written by Shankaras to Downs over a month after the riot. Shankaras’s defense attorney Patrick Collins indicated that he doesn’t deny writing them.

During questioning, Downs explained that the letter from Shankaras was to provide a detailed synopsis of the assault on officers and murder of Lt. Floyd because there was an implicit understanding among the rioters that those already serving life sentences would “take the charges” in place of “short timers.”

Downs is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Shankaras, originally jailed for robbery, was scheduled to be released last year and would already be a free man were it not for the pending charges. If convicted in this trial, he faces a life sentence.

However, deciding early on to cooperate with authorities, Downs said he kept the letters and smuggled them out of the prison to a family member for safe keeping, in an attempt to later leverage them with prosecutors to obtain a plea deal.

Taking the stand initially on Tuesday, Downs’s testimony has mirrored most of what he’s said on the stand in the two previous trials. In his telling of events, Downs claims to have participated in the planning of a “peaceful protest” that was taken into a violent direction by other inmates.
He says he didn’t participate in the assault and kidnapping of the hostages or, ultimately, the murder of Lt. Floyd.

Instead, he claims to have been an inmate with considerable clout among his peers who decided to intervene during the riot to handle negotiations and “save lives.”

During cross-examination, Mr. Collins attempted to cast Downs’s testimony as motivated by self-interest rather than a desire to be helpful. It was explained to the jury that prior to and since the riot, there have been developments in Downs’s original Maryland murder conviction in the form of a recanted testimony that may lead to it being overturned with the help of a lawyer.

Downs admitted it was likely that’d he would be pursuing that option in the near future. It was also made clear to the jury that by accepting a plea deal with prosecutors, Downs was able to successfully limit his exposure from convictions that can carry over 100 years worth of jail time all the way down to 0 to 3 years for the riot charge he pleaded guilty to.

What’s next in the trial?
On Wednesday afternoon, the prosecution started calling several of the riot survivors to the stand to testify — notably former correctional officer Joshua Wilkinson who was held captive and badly beaten during the incident. As in previous trials, the survivors have been unable to definitively identify any of the perpetrators either because of the makeshift masks they were wearing or because “things were happening really fast.”

Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s court was in recess Thursday and Friday but the trial will start back up on Monday morning. The prosecution is expected to continue calling the riot survivors like counselor Patricia May and the other correctional officer who was badly beaten, Winslow Smith, followed by several inmate eyewitnesses.

The first two trials took more than four weeks each to complete. It’s unclear if this trial will take as long, given that there is only one defendant standing trial.

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