Prosecutors get mixed reviews after prison riot trial

DOVER — In October 2017, the Delaware Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its intention to convict 16 inmates with the murder of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd.

Their success rate, so far, hovers around just 33 percent.

Accused inmates Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney were the first group of five to stand trial for their alleged roles in the deadly Vaughn prison riot last year.

All three stood accused of 11 charges each: Three counts of murder, four counts of kidnapping, two counts of assault, riot and conspiracy.

Eighteen inmates total were indicted, two stand accused of all the charges except murder. Only one inmate, Royal Downs, who was accused of the lesser crimes, has pleaded guilty.

After a nearly five-week trial and three solid days of deliberation, the jury acquitted Forney of all charges, found Ayers guilty of everything except murder, and Staats guilty of all charges except intentional first-degree murder.

About four weeks of the trial were consumed with Deputy Attorneys General John Downs, Nichole Warner and Brian Robertson showcasing evidence collected from the crime scene and trotting out witnesses to testify against the defendants.

Having no physical evidence directly implicating the three men and victims unable to accurately recall or discern who was responsible for the crimes, much of the prosecution’s case rested on testimony by other inmates claiming to have been hostages in C Building (site of the riot) during the uprising.

The defense took every opportunity, of which there were many, to hammer the witnesses’ credibility. This was done by pointing out inconsistencies between what the inmates said in court versus the transcripts of earlier statements given investigators and suggesting that they were either coerced or persuaded to testifying in hopes that they’d gain leniency in their respective sentences.

The defense also repeatedly pressured certain inmate eyewitnesses who appeared to have only come forward with suspect by name after having been housed for several months in a high security building alongside others who’d had been in C Building during the riot — implying their testimony was tainted by suggestion or coordination among the inmates.

A single day

When the prosecution rested, the defense answered their case in a single day. Ayers and Staats, both opting to defend themselves, called five inmates quickly to the stand, then put themselves on the stand to address the jury directly.

Ben Gifford, Forney’s defense attorney, put his client on the stand so he could tell his version of events.

Since the verdicts came in late Tuesday night, the prosecution’s effort has been commended by state officials.

“It’s my hope that these verdicts will bring some amount of closure to the victims, victims’ families and all of our officers who were affected, and continue to be affected, by these tragic events at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center,” Gov. John Carney said on Wednesday. “I want to extend a thank you to the prosecutors who brought this case to justice and all of our first responders who put their lives on the line every day. As we’ve said since last February, we remain committed to supporting their work, and making our facilities safer.”

Delaware Department of Corrections Commissioner Perry Phelps called the outcome a “long-awaited step toward healing and closure.”

“We extend our most sincere gratitude to the members of the jury who put their lives and families on hold to thoughtfully listen to and evaluate the evidence presented to them,” said Commissioner Phelps. “We are grateful for the efforts of the Delaware State Police and the DOJ who successfully and tirelessly pursued justice on behalf of our fallen officer. The DOC is and always will be: one family, one team.”

However, when asked if the verdicts gave Lt. Floyd justice, he appeared to struggle.

“I don’t know how to answer that right now,” he said after a long pause. “I believe the jury came to a conclusion, and we respect their decision.”

The DOJ declined to comment on the verdicts.

Some parties were less conciliatory. After personally sitting in on about a week’s worth of testimony over the course of the trial, Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said a lack of physical evidence and suspect testimony severely weakened the state’s case against the charged inmates.

The union expected more, he added.

“We’d hoped for more convictions in the first trial,” he said. “We assumed the state would bring their best cases forward first. Right now, I hope we’re incorrect about that assumption. We’d like to see the Attorney General’s office reassert their efforts as we move forward through this long process to ensure the murderers of Lt. Steven Floyd are brought to justice.”

Correctional officers frustrated

Mr. Klopp said the verdicts have left many of the state’s beleaguered correctional officers “frustrated.”

“They want to know who killed their brother,” Mr. Klopp said.

Wilmington attorney Thomas Neuberger called the outcome of the first trial “some justice.” Mr. Neuberger represented Lt. Floyd’s family and the survivors of the riot in a lawsuit against the state last year.

Much of the complaint rested on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long-ignored staffing issues within the DOC and how those failures led to the incident on Feb. 1.

However, the case never made it to trial. The state settled the lawsuit with 11 claimants in December 2017 for $7.55 million — believed to be the largest state-paid settlement in Delaware’s 230 year history.

“I know that prosecutor John Downs and his team spared no time, energy, effort or expense in the first trial,” he said. “And, each of them did their very best to get murder convictions and justice for Steve Floyd and his family and also protect other public safety officers in the future. The rest was out of their control.

“They deserve our thanks for the verdict on Tuesday. I am sure that nothing more could have been done and that no stone was left unturned by the prosecution. Some justice is better than no justice. The killers of Steve Floyd will someday face true justice in the next life and the Final Judgment.”

Before the trial started in October, Mr. Neuberger had expressed concern for his clients.

“All my surviving clients feel it is their civic duty to testify if the state needs them on the witness stand to seek convictions for the murder of Steven Floyd,” he said in October. “So they are cooperating with the prosecution’s demand that they be available to testify. They do this at great personal risk to their continuing mental health and healing.

“Naturally, their anxiety level is high and their health care professionals agree with this and are watching them carefully to prepare them for the flashbacks and stress of reliving the nightmares they endured. I expect any one of them can have a major setback after having to prepare to testify or take the stand at trial.”

Several of the victims, specifically prison counselor Patricia May and the badly beaten correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson who were held captive during the riot, struggled emotionally during their testimonies. But all answered every question put to them.

However, it’s likely they’ll need to return to give their testimonies four more times during the subsequent trials.

What’s next?

The next four groups of the remaining 15 inmates are expected to stand trial over the coming months. New juries will be selected for each.

The Office of Conflicts Counsel’s original schedule for the five back-to-back trials had the second trial slated to start on Nov. 5. That schedule noted that the next group of four inmates would include Obadiah Miller represented by Anthony Figliola, Lawrence Michaels represented by Andre Beauregard, John Bramble represented by Tom Pederson.

Indicted inmate Kelly Gibbs was also was slated to stand trial with the next group, but the DOC announced he was found dead early Thursday morning. The 30-year-old inmate pleaded guilty earlier last week to riot, kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with the incident last year, said DOC officials.

He is the second inmate connected to the Vaughn riot to die unexpectedly this month. The other, Luis Cabrera, died Nov. 8.Prison officials said foul play was not suspected in either death.

Delaware Superior Court was unable to provide the new start date of the next trial, but DOC officials believed jury selection wouldn’t start till January.

The court was also unable to confirm that the inmates originally slated to stand trial next would remain the same.

For Ayers, Staats and Forney, it’s unclear precisely what effect the verdicts will have on each inmate’s sentence. New Castle County Chief Staff Attorney Linda Carmichael noted on Tuesday that the sentencing date was unknown.

However, it’s expected that Forney will be released from prison once the remaining time of his original sentence is served. He was originally serving 11 years for a firearm conviction.


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