State’s ‘star-witness’ in prison riot trial gets prodded about contradictions, deal-making

WILMINGTON — Cross examination of inmate Royal Downs, the state’s star witness, in the ongoing Vaughn prison riot trial continued on Tuesday.

The trial is the second in a series of four to decide the fates of 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the February 2017 riot that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

Downs himself is one of the inmates originally charged with riot, conspiracy, kidnapping and assault. But, through a agreement made shortly after being charged, he pleaded guilty to riot in exchange for having the other charges dropped.

The four inmates currently standing trial in Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s courtroom — John Bramble, Obadiah Miller, Kevin Berry and Abednego Baynes — are facing charges of riot, kidnapping, conspiracy, assault and murder.

Taking the stand initially of Friday, Downs’s testimony has mirrored most of what he said on the stand last November during the first trial. 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, but casting himself as someone with considerable clout among fellow inmates, he said he decided to intervene during the riot to handle negotiations and “save lives.”

Introduced this trial by the prosecution as a key witness against Miller and Bramble, Downs claims that he didn’t see Berry or Baynes involved in the riot whatsoever.

Bramble’s defense attorney, Tom Pederson, went after Downs testimony on Friday, attempting to nail down contradictions in his story and convince the jury that he was cooperating with the prosecution only to buy leniency for himself.

Royal Downs

Miller’s attorney Tony Figliola did similarly on Tuesday. Downs claims to have seen Miller putting on a mask as he and other inmates were called in from the recreation yard just before the riot started.

Additionally, he claims to have seen Miller physically attacking an already wounded Lt. Floyd in the mop closet where he was held captive during the riot.

In his questioning of Downs, Mr. Figliola focused primarily on rehashing transcripts of Down’s multiple interviews with authorities in the wake of the riot, attempting to dredge for inconsistencies.

Mr. Figliola gave particular attention to Downs’s guilty plea, at one point asking him if it was true that he intervened to save lives and wasn’t a part of the violence, why did he plead guilty to riot. Why not stand trial and attempt to convince a jury of his innocence, Mr. Figliola asked.

“If you have that kind of trust in the justice system,” Downs quipped in response.

“You don’t trust the justice system?” asked Mr. Figliola.

“I mean just look at it — not at all,” said Downs.

Pointing out that Downs had been moved back to a prison in his home state of Maryland since pleading guilty, Mr. Figliola attempted to suggest to the jury that the Downs was being motivated by self-interest rather than a desire to be helpful.

Downs admitted that he was pleased to have been moved back to Maryland, but denied that it was part of a bargain he’s struck with prosecutors.

Downs is currently serving a natural life sentence and is in Delaware on an interstate compact agreement. On Friday, Mr. Pederson quizzed Downs about a phone conversation he had on January 2017 — three days before the riot — with his then “fiancée” referred to as Tracy.

It was revealed that Downs believed a development in his original Maryland murder conviction, in the form of a possible recanted testimony, might lead to it being overturned with the help of a lawyer.

Pulling at that same thread, Mr. Figliola asked Downs how things were going in Maryland with his “new trial” — implying that he was already in pursuit of having his original convictions overturned.

“I’ll let you know when I get one,” said Downs, laughing off the question.

“Do you have a hearing set up for it?” Mr. Figliola.

“I don’t,” said Downs.

The prosecution also put several first responders on the stand including members of the DOC’s CERT team and Delaware State Police’s SORT team. They were both responsible for retaking control of the building, rescuing a counselor held hostage and discovering the body of Lt. Floyd.

The state is expected to bring several more inmate eyewitnesses to the stand in the coming days.

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