Remembering Lionel: Magnolia woman hoped for justice for slain son

MAGNOLIA — Last Monday a jury of 11 women and one man returned a verdict for Obadiah Miller — one of the 18 inmates accused of perpetrating the 2017 Vaughn prison riot that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

They found the 26-year-old man not guilty of conspiracy, kidnapping and assault, but remained deadlocked on two counts of murder and a count of riot.

Ultimately, they delivered a “no decision” verdict to the judge on the three counts.

Tanya Butler, a frequent onlooker from the New Castle County Courtroom gallery over the course of the five-week trial, made her decision about Miller eight years ago when he pleaded guilty to killing her 10-year-old son Lionel “Diddy” Butler.

“That boy took everything from us,” Ms. Butler said of Miller. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he should spend the rest of his life in jail.”

According to State News archives, then 18-year-old Miller surrendered to authorities in late November 2010, several days after fatally shooting Lionel in Magnolia — where both of them lived. Miller was charged with first-degree murder and firearm charges and held without bail. However, in February 2011, a Kent County Superior Court grand jury indicted Miller on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

“The charge got reduced because they were saying it was an accident,” Ms Butler said. “It was outrageous. I couldn’t wrap my head around how it was possible that an 18-year-old man could just up and shoot a 10-year-old boy and only have to serve a couple years in prison. I couldn’t believe it.”

Originally sentenced to 10 years, the Department of Correction said Miller was scheduled to be released this October before being charged with the riot.

Miller’s future, for the moment is unclear, as the Department of Justice must decide whether to pursue and possibly retry the charges for which the jury entered “no decision.”

The shooting

In 2010, the Butlers lived in a mobile home park on Nascar Lane off Irish Hill Road in Magnolia. Miller lived in an adjacent park, Ms. Butler said.

Miller had a reputation in the neighborhood as a “trouble-maker” who’d gotten into frequent conflicts, Ms. Butler alleged. She noting several prior altercations between him and her older son, Tim, who was 15 at the time.

“He’d stolen Tim’s bike earlier that summer,” Ms. Butler claimed. “I chased him down the road myself. Also, a month before he killed Lionel, the kids were down by the field riding their dirt bike around and Obadiah showed up and was trying to fight with Tim.”

Tim says he recalls that he first met Miller when he used to come to their neighborhood to play basketball and tag.

“He was OK at first, but then he changed and he started getting into trouble — real trouble — like, people were always looking for him,” said Tim, now 24.

A particular incident Ms. Butler says continues to “haunt” her is when she claims to have intervened on Miller’s behalf in a potential confrontation.

“Obadiah was in our neighborhood when these boys from Woodside pulled up in a Durango and one of them got out to fight him,” said Ms. Butler. “Then I saw the other boy get out of the car and he had a gun. I knew these boys so I got in the middle of all them and told them to stop. I convinced them to leave. That was about a month before Obidiah shot Lionel. So I helped save him a month before he killed my son.”

When Ms. Butler returned home from work on Nov. 24, 2010, her kids said they were hungry so she took her daughter Natanya Johnson, a second-grader at the time, and drove to a nearby Subway. Lionel and Tim were playing together outside when she left, Ms. Butler said.

By Tim’s recollection, they were playing with BB guns when they saw Miller approach brandishing what appeared to be a small-caliber handgun.

“Lionel kept asking (Miller) if it was a real gun, but he said, ‘No, it’s just a BB gun,’” said Tim. “I saw the front of the gun and didn’t look like a regular one — it looked like it was real old.”

Then, Miller threatened to shoot Lionel with it, said Tim. Thinking it was a BB gun, Lionel said ‘Do it then,’ Tim recalled.

“I remember hearing the shot because it was really quiet and there was a lot of spark — that’s why I think it was an older gun, too,” he said. “Then Lionel fell down and I tried to catch him. And the boy (Miller) just stood there for a second at first and said ‘Get up, quit playing.’ Then he took off running.”

Tim said he chased Miller to the edge of the park, but didn’t catch him.

Ms. Butler said her neighbor called and told her Lionel had been shot, so she rushed home. Once there, she found Lionel laying on the ground with a gunshot wound to the chest. She remembers trying, unsuccessfully, to resuscitate him.

“I was trying to revive him, but he was already gone,” she said through tears.

Ms. Butler rode with Lionel to Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

At the time of the incident, police said Miller was thought to have run home after the shooting where he told his mother that he had a gun and that he had “accidentally” shot a child. His mother told police that she’d driven him to a residence in Capital Park in Dover. He remained at-large for about four days until eventually turning himself in.

Tanya Butler with her son and daughter.

Though Miller was ultimately convicted on a manslaughter charge, Ms. Butler has never believed the shooting was an accident and has long claimed that the attorney general’s office at the time handled the case poorly.

“I just could not understand why they were dropping it to manslaughter — they were telling me that no jury was going to convict him otherwise so the plea was the right move — but there were five witnesses who all were saying the same thing,” said Ms. Butler.

She also had misgivings about the gun used in the crime. Allegedly Miller’s defense was that he’d thought the safety was on before squeezing the trigger.

“If it was an older gun or revolver like Timmy saw, a lot of those don’t even have safeties,” Ms. Butler said.

Asking around, Ms. Butler believed she determined the person who gave Miller the gun and told police in an effort to aid the investigation. But, she claims they never followed up on the tip.

Police told this paper at the time of the incident that the gun used in the crime was unidentified and never located.

“I don’t think they did anything to find that gun,” Ms. Butler said. “I have no faith in the justice system. This wasn’t an accident, but they gave him manslaughter anyway — even after me and Timmy went in to talk to them again. What it boiled down to for me, was that my son just didn’t matter to them.”

Riot charges

While at work as a Dairy Queen manager in October 2017, she overheard that inmates were charged in connection with the deadly prison riot earlier that year.

“I heard they charged 18 of them so I pulled up the article and started scrolling through it — then I saw his (Miller’s) picture,” said Ms. Butler. “I started screaming. I had to leave.”

Long feeling her son was denied “justice,” Ms. Butler said she was filled with rage the day she first saw Miller’s name and face in the paper. But, the more she talked to her family and reflected, she began to hope Miller would finally face the sentence she always thought he deserved.

“It was awful that the riot happened and terrible that Floyd lost his life,” she said. “But I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason — I’ve had to — so I thought he’d finally be in jail for the rest of his life.”

She anxiously awaited the start of Miller’s trial and was surprised to see that it began on Jan. 14 — Lionel’s birthday. Skipping that first day of to stay home and celebrate his birthday, she attended about a week’s worth of the trial in the time she could get off work.

Thinking she’d “break down” seeing Miller again, she said she only felt angry. “I stared at him the entire time,” she said. “I know he’d seen me, too, but he wouldn’t look at me. He knows exactly who I am.”

Initially encouraged, Ms. Butler believed that the prosecution’s evidence against Miller would be enough for a murder conviction.

“I mean, they had DNA evidence and I listened to the testimony from his cell mate myself — I believed every word of it,” she said. “He described him (Miller) coming back to the cell after the riot started all covered in blood, with the way he spoke, it was convincing.”

However, defense attorney’s hammered on “contradictory” inmate eyewitness testimony during the course of the trial. To varying degrees of success, they were able to identify inconsistencies in statements inmate eyewitnesses had given investigators — in affect undermining their testimonies.

As for the DNA evidence, it was the state’s primary, and only, positive DNA match to implicate any of the 18 inmates. But defense attorneys cast doubt on it during the trial as well. The sample, which was a dot of blood, came back from the state’s DNA lab as a positive match for both Lt. Floyd and Miller. The sample had been collected in the mop closet Lt. Floyd had been held captive and allegedly beaten in.

However, during Miller’s defense attorney Tony Figliola’s cross-examination of the state’s DNA expert, it was explained that Lt. Floyd was the majority contributor to the sample while Miller was only found to be a minor contributor.

Though it’s not uncommon that a single crime scene sample can contain genetic material from several individuals Mr. Figliola pursued a line of questioning that suggested to the jury that Miller’s contribution to the sample could have easily been “touch DNA” such as sweat, skin cells and the like — especially since it was impossible to deduce who’s blood the sample contained.

Further, Mr. Figliola demonstrated that because Miller was a “tier man” — an inmate with prison janitorial duties — it wouldn’t be unusual to find trace amounts of his DNA in the mop closet.

“If someone had regular access to this mop closet, would it surprise you to find their DNA in there?” Mr. Figliola asked during the trial.

“No, I wouldn’t be surprised,” replied a state DNA expert, Lauren Rothwell.

Ultimately, the case laid out for the jury was not enough to convince them unequivocally of Miller’s guilt.

Conceding that the circumstances of the crime made an investigation difficult and the volume of testimony likely left jurors bewildered, Ms. Butler still can’t help feeling that the state’s justice system has “failed again.”

“After everything this boy (Miller) has done, this is who you’re going to let out?” she said. “I just can’t believe it.”

While the DOJ must still decide if they will pursue the “no decision” counts, for Ms. Butler, it’d be an easy choice.

“I really hope they do,” she said. “Maybe it’d be different if he was on trial on his own. I think that became an issue with the trial: trying four inmates together. Having four defense attorneys all go in a row, that’s a lot for one jury to take in and process.”

For her part, Ms. Butler said she’s beginning to make preparations to move to Florida with her children to be near family. If Miller is released, Ms. Butler said she can’t be nearby.

“I just can’t be driving my car one day and see him walking down the road,” she said.

Lionel’s legacy

Holding fast to her belief that “everything happens for a reason,” Ms. Butler said her family will continue its focus to remember Lionel for who he was in his all too short life.

“Everyone loved him,” she said.

Lionel played basketball on the CYO at Holy Cross Catholic Church and was well-liked by his teachers and fellow classmates, Chester Cox, then-principal of Star Hill Elementary School told this paper in 2010.

“Anybody who knew Lionel, students and staff, they couldn’t help but love the kid,” Mr. Cox said at the time.

The Caesar Rodney school district hasn’t forgotten Lionel either, Ms. Butler noted. The family received an honorary diploma on his behalf from Caesar Rodney High School last year — when he would have graduated. During the graduation ceremony, a robe was slung over the chair where he would have sat.

By his sister Natanya, Lionel is remembered as her “best friend” — a playful, but faithful protector who would hold her hand when they walked to the bus and sometimes give away his hide-and-seek spot by his inability to conceal his “big afro.” Tim remembers Lionel as his beloved little brother and a great basketball player.

Ms. Butler remembers Lionel as a boy who had friends everywhere he went. She noted he was the kind of kid who’d go out of his way to stand up for the other kids on the playground who were getting bullied.

“He loved to cook — the night before he passed, him and Natanya helped me cook dinner,” she said. “He made the dippy eggs and set the table. We were having breakfast for dinner. He loved to dance, too. I remember pulling out in my car to go to the Subway just before he was shot; he had the radio in the window and he was just dancing around in the front yard. He would have been a great young man. Obadiah ruined our lives the day he took Lionel from us.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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