Vaughn riot jury struggles with accomplice liability

WILMINGTON — Entering their second day of deliberation on Monday, the jury deciding the fate of three of the 18 inmates charged with the fatal Vaughn prison riot last year requested a clarification from the court in the early afternoon.

The indicted inmates are being tried separately in five groups. The first group consists of inmates Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Forney. All three stand accused of murder, assault, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy.

Staats and Ayers have opted to defend themselves with the assistance of state-appointed counsel. Forney is being represented by defense attorney Ben Gifford.

Though not mentioning anyone by name in their letter to Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. on Monday, the jury asked the court if “person A” restrains someone but “person B” later obtains the keys and does not release the victim, is it considered restraint.

Presumably, the jury is struggling to assess the guilt of Ayers. During the course of the four-week trial, several inmate eyewitnesses housed in C Building (the site of the riot) at the time of the incident claimed to have observed Ayers facilitating the release of inmate “hostages” who were in need of medical attention or desired to be released from the building. Though Ayers never denied taking names of inmates needing to be released from the building for medical reasons, he said he had no part in restraining them in the first place.

Throughout the course of the trial, Ayers has proclaimed his innocence. He repeatedly pointed to the lack of evidence connecting him to any of the crimes of which he stood accused and dismissed the scant testimony that implicated him. He admitted that he knew a potential “peaceful protest” was being planned in the lead-up to the riot and that after the riot had started he got involved to help organize the release of inmates who needed medical care.

“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen before the riot, but I knew something was going to happen,” Ayers said to the jury during the trial. “But, I never kidnapped nobody. Never assaulted nobody. Never killed nobody.”

Regardless, the prosecution claimed to have illustrated through the evidence they presented that Ayers was guilty of all the crimes he was charges with through accomplice liability. Broadly, accomplice liability enables a person to be held criminally for acts committed by a different person if they aided, assisted or encouraged the commission of the crime.

Answering jury’s question

Judge Carpenter presented the question to the prosecution and defense for discussion — Ayers was the first to raise his concerns. He argued that in order to hold someone responsible for kidnapping, the jury should have to find that person guilty of intentionally holding someone against their will.

“If person B obtains the keys, does he have the obligation to open the door?” Ayers asked. “If he doesn’t, is he a kidnapper?”

Ayers also pointed out that the jury appears to be making an assumption that the keys used during the riot to let “hostage” inmates out of the building were the same to the closet doors where the three correctional officers were being held captive in.

“But I know they’re not in evidence, so we can’t really argue it,” he said.

The prosecution pushed back, claiming that the matter fell directly under accomplice liability, and the jury should be referenced to their original instructions on the matter.

Eventually, Judge Carpenter called in the jury to brief them.

“An individual continues to be restrained until he is released alive and unharmed in a safe place prior trial,” he said. “However, if you find that person A did initial restraining, you must consider person B’s actions in light of accomplice liability instructions.”

It’s unclear how much longer deliberation will continue. As of 3 p.m. on Monday, no verdict had been announced.

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