Vaughn prison riot prosecutor: ‘Vicious, coordinated violence’

WILMINGTON — Prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants fired their opening salvos Monday in the high-profile criminal trial for the first group of inmates charged in the Feb. 1, 2017, prison riot.

Deputy Attorney General Nichole Warner painted a picture of “vicious” and “coordinated violence” in which a group of inmates took control of C Building at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, killed Lt. Steven Floyd, held prison counselor Patricia May hostage and savagely beat correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson.

Sixteen inmates are facing murder charges, and along with two other prisoners, are also looking at counts of kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting. The inmates are being tried separately in five groups before Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. at the New Castle County Court House. The first group consists of inmates Roman Shankaras, Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of three counts of murder in the first degree.

Staats and Ayers have opted to defend themselves with the assistance of state-appointed counsel. Shankaras and Forney are being represented by public defense attorneys Jason Antoine and Ben Gifford, respectively.

Lodging their opening statements separately, the defendants all sought to characterize the prosecution’s evidence as inconsistent and drive home the importance of a presumption of innocence.

‘Blood all over the floor’

In her opening statement, Ms. Warner attempted to provide a play-by-play explanation of the riot for the jury. Though it began like any other day, Feb. 1, 2017 took a drastic turn around 10 a.m., she said, 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, who’d been meeting with an inmate at the time of the riot, was also rushed by an inmate with a knife and held captive with a bag over her head.

Three maintenance workers who’d been in the basement of C Building were coming up from completing their work at the time of the riot when they were confronted by an inmate who warned: “Don’t go in there, it’s crazy,” Ms. Warner told those gathered in the court room Monday.

In an effort to learn what was happening, the maintenance workers came across Lt. Floyd who asked for help, but they were turned away by an inmate who threatened them with a knife, said Ms. Warner.

Thinking quickly, one of the workers told the inmate that he had chemicals in a container in his possession that would kill him if he was sprayed. Because of that, the workers were able to return safely to the basement and lock themselves in, said Ms. Warner.

Defendants guard by nine correctional officers in the courtroom during the trial. (Special to Delaware State News/Sam Ford)

While this happened, a correctional officer response team of about five officers came into C Building to attempt a rescue.

“Upon entering, they noticed that there was blood everywhere and it was eerily quiet,” Ms. Warner said, addressing the jury.

However, the response team was warned by Lt. Floyd that the riot was a trap and he told them to get out.

“At this point, the first phase of the riot was complete, the inmates had control of the building,” said Ms. Warner.

Several audio clips were played for jurors including the distress calls when the riot started and negotiation between inmates and law enforcement. The first hostage to be released was Mr. Smith, followed by a group of inmates around 2 p.m., noted Ms. Warner.

From where he was being held in an adjacent supply closet, Mr. Wilkinson allegedly heard a “second attack” on Lt. Floyd. Ms. Warner said that he heard “whimpering,” the sounds of weapons thudding against his body and then silence.

However, Ms. Warner suggested that the exact time of Lt. Floyd’s death was unknown. Around 7 p.m., Mr. Wilkinson was released with another group of inmates. Eventually, around 5 a.m. the following morning, the building was sieged, Ms. May was rescued unharmed and Lt. Floyd was found dead. A subsequent autopsy revealed that the cause of death was multiple stab wounds and blunt force trauma.

Ms. Warner told the jury that the inmates responsible attempted to burn bloody clothing and other evidence. Regarding the four specific inmates on trial, Ms. Warner said the prosecution would show that each of them actively participated in the riot and murder.

She said the state was in possession of a recorded phone call inmate Ayers made on Jan. 31, 2017 in which he noted:

“Something big is going down, I’m going to need extra commissary money cause I’m going to be on lockdown for awhile.”

As for Forney and Staats, Ms. Warner said they were observed by witnesses participating in the assault. Staats is alleged to have been one of the two inmates negotiating with the state during the riot.

The state reserved particularly direct accusations for Shankaras, who they called the “mastermind” and “shot-caller” of the riot. Ms. Warner said testimony from another inmate, Royal Downs, who also stands accused of all the charges except for murder, will reveal that the riot was Shankaras’ “vision.”

Downs is the only inmate charged in connection with the riot to have pleaded guilty. Before proceedings began on Monday, it was noted that Shankaras had rejected a plea deal to lesser charges that would have capped his sentence at 20 years.

Consistent inconsistencies

Speaking on Shankaras’ behalf during the defense’s opening statements, Mr. Antoine provided a stark contrast of Downs — who he called the state’s “star witness.” Alleging that Downs has well-known Baltimore gang connections, Mr. Antoine says that it’s very likely Downs himself “green-lighted” the “hit” on Lt. Floyd.

“This guy is one of the most influential and dangerous people in Delaware’s prisons,” he said in his opening statement.

Claiming that his client was manipulated by Downs, he said that Shankaras had wanted only to participate in a peaceful demonstration. He also noted that Shankaras had a demonstrably amiable relationship with Lt. Floyd. Mr. Antoine told the court that Lt. Floyd went out of his way to get Shankaras a job in the kitchen — a sign that he trusted and appreciated him.

“He didn’t have any beef with him,” said Mr. Antoine.

Mr. Antoine intends to ask for complete acquittal for Shankaras.

Addressing the jury on their own behalf, both Staats and Ayres stressed the importance of the presumption of innocence in their opening statements.

Alleging the state has no forensic evidence against him and has built their case with testimony from “inconsistent” witnesses, Ayres begged jurors for an unbiased verdict.

“I’m going to expose the state for just trying to pick and choose who the bad guys are,” he said. “There is an illusion of prestige that I’m up against and I refuse to be in awe of it.”

Arguing for his client, Mr. Gifford launched into a soliloquy on the meaning of “reasonable doubt.”

“We aren’t on a level playing field,” said Mr. Gifford. “The burden is on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my client is guilty of all the charges. We often hear ‘innocent until proven guilty’, which has an implication that the defendant will eventually be found guilty, but a better way to frame it is ‘innocent unless proven guilty.’”

After opening statements, the state brought their first two witnesses to the stand, Sgt. David Weaver and Cpl. Roger Cresto — both investigators with the Delaware State Police — who were integral in developing the charges against the 18 inmates. With their witnesses’ assistance, the state began the laborious process of unpacking their evidence for the jury, mostly in the form of crime scene photographs.

Just before dismissal Monday, the jury was shown photos of Lt. Floyd’s body, handcuffed, shirtless and lying face down in water and debris.

The state is expected to continue walking the jury through its evidence Tuesday with the possibility of calling riot survivors Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Smith to the stand.

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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