State’s case built on ‘testimony from snakes’ — defense lawyer says

WILMINGTON — In his opening argument on behalf of inmate John Bramble, defense attorney Tom Pederson told an allegory about a farmer rescuing a frozen snake by warming it in his pocket. Once warm, the venomous snake immediately bit the farmer on the neck.

As the farmer lay dying, the snake told him he bit him to teach him a lesson: “Do not trust the wicked.

“That’s the position the state is putting you in,” Mr. Pederson told the jury of 11 women and one man seated for the trial for four of the 18 inmates charged in the February 2017 prison riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

“I submit to you, that what (the state’s evidence) really boils down to is the testimony of snakes from C Building,” he said.

Mr. Pederson’s theatrical oration was one of five opening arguments delivered Monday morning at the New Castle County Courthouse.

Of the original 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the riot that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead and several other staff members brutalized or otherwise traumatized, 13 men await verdicts.

The first three inmates to stand trial — Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney — were handed verdicts on Nov. 20 last year.

The jury found Staats guilty of all charges except for intentional first-degree murder, Ayers guilty of all charges except the three murder counts and Forney not guilty.

One of the inmates pleaded guilty to all charges before the first trial started, and one killed himself in November.

The four inmates currently standing trial — Bramble, Obadiah Miller, Kevin Berry and Abednego Baynes — are expected to have approximately five weeks of court proceedings ahead of them.

Mr. Pederson’s colorful claim about the state’s witnesses quickly drew Deputy Attorney General Nicole Warner from her seat to request a sidebar with Judge William C. Carpenter Jr., the other prosecutors (Deputy Attorneys General John Downs and Brian Robertson) and all four defense attorneys.

It was unclear what was discussed there, but when Mr. Pederson resumed his statement, it was with a slightly more modest tone.

Abednego Baynes

But the tack he’d been pursuing also was pushed by the other attorney, chiefly that the state’s case against their clients rested largely on inconsistent, dubious eyewitness testimony from the other inmates housed in C Building, where the 19-hour riot occurred.

Mr. Pederson told the jury to expect “a dizzying array of contradictions” from the state’s witnesses during the proceedings.

“Some of these witnesses are murderers, rapists, drug dealers, child molesters — it runs the gamut — but the prosecution’s case is predicated on those testimonies,” he said.

Four on trial

Miller, Bramble, Berry and Baynes are all individually facing the same charges: Murder, riot, conspiracy, kidnapping and assault.

Miller, 26, was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter in 2010. Before being charged with crimes related to the riot, his anticipated release date was November of this year.

Kevin Berry

The murder charges he’s currently facing come with mandatory life sentences. Miller is being defended by attorney Tony Figliola.

During his opening argument, Mr. Figliola dismissed the state’s evidence against his client, calling it “circumstantial.” He asked the jury to hold the prosecution to its obligation to prove that his client was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“If they say there is a bloody rag hanging out of a locker box, make sure they prove that rag was bloody,” he said.

Bramble, 29, was sentenced to 40 years in 2013 for home invasion, assault and firearm charges, according to the state Department of Correction. He was scheduled to be released in 2048.

Berry, 28, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2009 on robbery and firearm convictions.

Before being charged with crimes related to the riot, his expected release date was May 2022. Attorney Andy Witherell was appointed to defend him in the trial.

John Bramble

During his opening argument, Mr. Witherell too claimed the state’s evidence was paltry save for suspect testimony from inmate witnesses. Being somewhat more charitable than Mr. Pederson, he noted that the jury would hear from a “cast of characters” during the proceedings and that rendering a fair verdict to his client would be reliant on judging witness “credibility.”

“You all have a good view of the witness stand. Watch how they act, their demeanor — are they fidgety?” Mr. Witherell told the jury. “You must ask yourself how they come across to you in terms of credibility.”

Baynes, 26, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2010 for second-degree murder, according to the DOC. He was scheduled to be released in 2025 before being charged in connection with the riot.

He’s being represented by Cleon Cauley and co-counsel Saagar Shah.

Agreeing with the other defense attorneys, Mr. Cauley said the state’s witnesses would fill the courtroom with contradictions.

“The state’s own star witness will tell you my client was not involved,” he told the jury. “Why would the state just pick and choose which testimony it wanted you to believe?”

The prosecution’s case introduced

As expected, much of the state’s approach to the case appears intact from the first trial. Ms. Warner called the riot a “vicious, coordinated” act of violence, adjectives used during the first trial.

Obadiah Miller

She painted a picture of what she called a planned attack during which a group of masked inmates took control of C Building at Vaughn prison, killed Lt. Floyd, held prison counselor Patricia May hostage and savagely beat correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson.

In a play-by-play explanation of the riot for the jury, she said, though it began like any other day, Feb. 1, 2017 took a drastic turn around 10 a.m., when Lt. Floyd was letting inmates in from recreation time in the yard of C Building.

As Lt. Floyd opened the door, he was rushed in a coordinated attack by masked inmates wielding mop ringers, shanks and blunt instruments, she said.

Lt. Floyd, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wilkinson were all quickly subdued, beaten and thrown into closets — Lt. Floyd in a separate “mop closet.” Ms. May also was quickly taken hostage and held for the duration of the riot.

As for the defendants in the courtroom, Ms. Warner said testimony would indicate that all four men participated in the initial attacks, kidnapping and ultimately the murder.

Deputy Attorney General Nicole Warner addresses the court Monday. Illustration by Gail Piazza

On Monday afternoon, the prosecution began presenting its evidence.

Homicide crime scene investigator Cpl. Roger Cresto showcased more than 200 photos of the scene to the jury — including the suspected murder weapons and Lt. Floyd’s body.

Prosecutors are expected to continue unpacking their initial investigation of the crime and calling DOC staff eyewitnesses tomorrow.


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