Vaughn prison riot trial: Defense casts doubt on state’s DNA evidence

From left, inmate Obadiah Miller and his defense attorney Tony Figliola, and attorney Cleon Cauley with inmate Abednego Baynes listen intently to state witness testimony.
(Special to Delaware State News/Gail Piazza)

WILMINGTON — The state’s primary, and only, piece of DNA evidence against one of the inmates accused of perpetrating the deadly prison riot in 2017 was both introduced and questioned on Thursday.

Of the original 18 inmates charged in connection with the riot that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead, 13 men await verdicts. The first three inmates to stand trial — Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney — were handed theirs 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 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.

A state DNA expert, Lauren Rothwell of the Delaware Division of Forensic Science, testified on Thursday that the only DNA evidence submitted by investigators that matched any of the inmates in C Building (the site of the riot) belonged to Miller. Miller’s DNA was found in the mop closet where Lt. Floyd was held captive after the initial assault. The sample provided to the state’s lab was a blood swab, however, Ms. Rothwell explained that Lt. Floyd was the majority contributor to the sample while Miller was only found to be a minor contributor. It’s not uncommon that a single crime scene sample can contain genetic material from several individuals.

During cross-examination, Miller’s defense attorney, Tony Figliola, went after the state’s only piece of physical evidence against his client. First asking Ms. Rothwell if she could be certain the blood belonged to either Lt. Floyd or Miller, he then asked if it was possible that Miller’s “touch DNA” such as sweat, skin cells and the like, could have been in the room. Ms. Rothwell noted that because the sample returned two separate DNA results, it was impossible to say for certain who’s blood it was.

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

“No, I wouldn’t be surprised,” replied Ms. Rothwell.

Mr. Figliola noted to the jury during his opening argument on Monday that before the riot, Miller had been a “tier man,” someone with prison janitorial responsibilities that would have put him in frequent contact with the mop closet and supplies contained therein. This line of inquiry suggests he intends to argue that the DNA evidence may have been found in the crime scene circumstantially — placed there by his client before the commencement of the riot rather than during.

Brisk pace

With the trial’s fourth day behind it, proceedings appear to be moving at an accelerated pace compared with the first trial.

Judge Carpenter excused the jury an hour and a half earlier than usual on Thursday saying the case appeared to be making “very good progress.”

“We’ve been through 18 witnesses so far, so I’m comfortable giving you some extra time,” he told the jury.

When asked for an update, the prosecution informed the judge that they were “on schedule.”

The first few days of the trial have been occupied with the state painting an hour-by-hour picture of the riot through the testimony of the initial responders, victims and hostages, negotiators, evidence collectors and investigation team.

Perhaps contributing to the accelerated pace, the four defense attorneys in the courtroom appear more intent on merely cross-examining the state’s witnesses to the extent that their testimony implicates their clients rather than attempting to dismantle and undermine the state’s investigation. Much more of this approach was taken during the first trial. The inmates who’d opted to defend themselves often pursued lengthy lines of questioning. Many more objections were raised during the first trial as well, the majority owing to the pro se inmates’ inexperience with courtroom protocol.

Lessons learned

The prosecution team, deputy attorneys general John Downs, Brian Robertson and Nicole Warner, appear to have made some alterations to their approach as well to tighten their narrative and forestall any objections.

A notable example of this are changes made to an evidence map used to describe the crime scene during homicide investigator Cpl. Roger Cresto’s testimony on Monday.

In the first trial, Cpl. Cresto was presented the same map, but it was revealed during cross-examination to be an inaccurate representation. The truncated map of C Building was meant to give jurors a physical representation about where certain pieces of evidence were collected from the crime scene.

In the first trial, the defense pressed Cpl. Cresto on the details of the map’s layout, suggesting that the map only displayed the beginning portion of each of C Building’s three wings.

At first saying the map was “not to scale,” Cpl. Cresto eventually admitted that it was, in fact, not an accurate representation of where the labeled evidence was actually found despite having presented it to the jury as such.

Evidence that was found outside of the truncated map’s scope appeared to have been arbitrarily moved closer to the center of the building in order to have it all appear on the map without making proper notation.

This time around a large block-lettered “not to scale” label appeared on the same map when it was presented by Cpl. Cresto on Monday. Additionally, the evidence markers that indicated items that would have been further off the map were accompanied by arrows that noted their actual locations more clearly.

The prosecution is expected to start calling their inmate eyewitnesses in the coming days, how this portion of their case has changed since the first trial — if at all — remains to be seen.

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