Shankaras acquitted in Vaughn riot

Roman Shankaras

WILMINGTON — The biggest courtroom in the New Castle County Courthouse was pin drop silent on Thursday as the latest raft of verdicts was delivered in the ongoing Vaughn riot trials.

After nearly two weeks of witness testimony and two days of deliberation, the jury decided Roman Shankaras — an inmate charged with perpetrating the deadly 2017 prison riot — was not guilty.

Shankaras was one of the original 18 inmates charged in October 2017 for crimes associated with the riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that resulted in the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd. Shankaras was charged with riot, conspiracy, assault, kidnapping and murder.

Upon hearing the verdicts, Shankaras put his head down — overcome with relief. He faced a life sentence had he been convicted.

“I’m very relieved for Rome (Shankaras),” said defense attorney Patrick Collins while leaving the courthouse on Thursday. “He’s very relieved and appreciative of all the jury’s hard work. I talked to him a long time today while we were waiting: he was prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best and now he’s ready to get on with his life.

“He wants to get back home and be with his family and never step foot in a corrections facility ever again. He’s very committed to that. Now that I know him and have spent a lot of time with him, I believe that he’s going to follow through with that.”

Originally serving time for robbery, Shankaras was scheduled for release in April 2018, but was being held on “detentioner” charges in connection with the riot. Now acquitted, he’s expected to be released in the coming days.

After the verdict was announced, Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. ordered that paperwork be filed “promptly” for Shankaras’s release.

“It’ll probably be tomorrow at the latest (his release),” said Mr. Collins. “His days as a pre-trial detainee will be over within the next 24 hours.”

Lillian Oliver, who identified herself as Shankaras’s wife, said she expected this outcome.

“I knew he was coming home — he’s not a murderer,” she said. “God is good. I knew it was going to be not guilty. I prayed for it, this was just a reality check. He was supposed to be home two years ago.”

The prosecution team of deputy attorneys general John Downs, Brian Robertson and Nichole Warner declined to comment on the outcome of the recent trial. The DOJ has struggled under the weight of the complicated case, so far only securing a single murder conviction out of the eight inmates they’ve tried over the past several months.

Over the past two weeks, the prosecution had leaned heavily on inmate eyewitness testimony and two confiscated “kites” (prison letters) to paint Shankaras as one of the primary organizers of the riot. Mr. Collins routinely questioned the investigation methods that led the state to charge his client, pointed out contradictions in state witness testimony and insisted that Shankaras was duped by Royal Downs — another of the charged inmates — into writing the incriminating letters.

Ultimately it was a question of credibility, Mr. Collins claimed.

“In my opinion, the physical evidence or lack of it wasn’t a significant issue in this case,” he said. “The bigger issue was that there were significant credibility questions and motivational issues with Royal Downs. I think this case ended up being a showdown: do we believe Royal Downs or Roman Shankaras?”

Though conciliatory, DOC personnel were less than pleased with the outcome.

“We thank the members of the jury for their time and service to the State of Delaware,” Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps said in a statement. “The news is upsetting, but we continue to be appreciative of the Department of Justice and Delaware State Police who diligently worked a complex case.”

Correctional Officers Association of Delaware president Geoff Klopp said the verdict shocked him “beyond belief.”

“Our heart continues to go out to the Floyd family — we’re really starting to get frustrated with the fact that no one is being held accountable for the death of our brother,” he said. “I just don’t understand how this could go so wrong, the only conviction we got was on an inmate who confessed from the stand — that’s unbelievable. I hope (former Attorney General) Matt Denn is losing sleep over this, because it’s the worst travesty of justice I’ve ever seen in my life.”

When asked if he thought the DOJ should continue to pursue charges on the remaining inmates, Mr. Klopp said it likely wasn’t worth the effort.

“At the end of the day, we appreciate the hard work of the investigators and prosecutors, but if this is the best we can do, it seems hardly worth it to continue,” he said.

Thomas Neuberger, a Wilmington attorney who represented Floyd’s estate, family and other riot survivors in a lawsuit against the state, suggested his “hero” client has not been done justice.

“After three failures I can no longer encourage or speak well of the prosecution,” he said on Thursday. “The prosecutors were inept and outclassed three times now. Such repeated failure should make our new attorney general, Kathleen Jennings, clean house in her homicide unit. The state needs new blood; big league players, not minor leaguers, who have been constantly out played and outclassed by criminal defense lawyers.”

Much of the complaint filed by Mr. Neuberger in 2017 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 history.

What’s next?

Originally in October 2017, 18 inmates were charged with perpetrating the riot — 16 of whom were charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, riot and assault and the remaining two standing accused of all but murder. Much has changed since then.

The first two trials, one completed last November and the other earlier this year, resulted in few convictions for the state.

In the first trial, the jury returned verdicts of guilty for Jarreau Ayers and Dwayne Staats and not guilty for Deric Forney. Ayers picked up convictions for riot, kidnapping, assault and conspiracy. Staats was convicted on all of those charges plus murder.

Inmates John Bramble, Abednego Baynes, Kevin Berry and Obadiah Miller were tried in the second group. That nearly month-long trial ended in February with Baynes and Berry being acquitted. Several “no decision” verdicts were issued for Miller and Bramble. All were accused of murder, kidnapping, riot, assault and conspiracy, but after hearing the state’s case against the men, the jury of 11 women and one man were deadlocked specifically on Miller’s murder and riot counts and Bramble’s assault and riot charges. The jury had deliberated for nearly five days. The state abandoned its charges against Bramble in early April.

Staats remains the only inmate accused of perpetrating the 2017 prison riot to be convicted of murder.

Two of the indicted inmates were never going to stand trial: Downs and Kelly Gibbs.

Downs pleaded guilty to the riot charge before the first trial started last fall. He accepted a plea bargain that resulted in the rest of the charges he faced being dropped. He was also required to testify in court on the state’s behalf in all three trials so far.

Gibbs killed himself in November, shortly after the conclusion of the first trial. His suicide came days after he had pleaded guilty to charges of riot, kidnapping and conspiracy.

After the second trial, the DOJ announced in mid-March that they decided not to pursue charges on six of the remaining inmates.

With Shankaras’s verdict delivered, the two remaining inmates, Lawrence Michaels and Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz, are scheduled to stand trial in October.

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