Vaughn riot trial: Prosecutors pin hopes to incriminating letters

Roman Shankaras

WILMINGTON — The next round in the high-stakes trials to determine who was responsible for the 2017 riot at Vaughn prison kicked off on Monday. The incident left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead and several staff brutalized or traumatized.

The third trial in a series of four will determine the fate of Roman Shankaras — one of the original 18 inmates accused of perpetrating the riot. Since the indictments in October 2017, seven of the inmates have stood trial, one has pleaded guilty, one killed himself in prison and charges were dropped against six. After Shankaras, the two last inmates with pending charges will stand trial.

Shankaras is accused of murder, assault, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy. Originally jailed for robbery, he was scheduled to be released in April 2018. Were it not for the riot charges, he’d likely have already been released. If convicted, he faces a life sentence.

For Shankaras, Monday marked a return to Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s courtroom. He was part of the first group that stood trial last October but he was dropped several days after opening statements on account of a “deteriorating relationship” with his defense attorney Jason Antoine. For this trial, Shankaras is being represented by defense attorney Patrick Collins.

One difference in the current trial is that the courtroom is less crowded. Three inmates were tried simultaneously in the first trial and four in the second. Not only is a lot less room needed for each inmate and their legal teams, but the original complement of nine correctional officers who were assigned to transport and secure the inmates has been cut down to a more manageable four.

Jury selection was finalized on Monday morning before opening statements. After over a dozen strikes from the prosecution and defense, eight men and four women were selected to serve during the likely multi-week trial. Three women and one man were also selected as alternate jurors — they serve on standby in case one of the primary 12 jurors must be replaced.

Prosecution’s case

As she has in the past two Vaughn riot trials, Deputy Attorney General Nichole Warner provided the opening statement for the prosecution. Her statement painted a picture for the jury of a coordinated, violent attack on correctional officers by a group of inmates intent on taking control of C Building (site of the riot). She described the ensuing 19-hour standoff in which Lt. Floyd was killed, counselor Patricia May was held hostage and correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson were savagely beaten.

Ms. Warner was explicit in saying that no evidence would be presented to suggest that Shankaras’s DNA was at the crime scene or on any murder weapons, but rather that he acted as an organizer of deadly attack. The state’s primary evidence against him are several “kites” (prison letters) they claim Shankaras wrote to Royal Downs — one of the other inmates charged with perpetrating the riot.

Ms. Warner told the jury they’d see, through Downs’ testimony, that Shankaras was directly involved in turning what would have been a non-violent inmate demonstration into a deadly riot.

Royal Downs

“Inmates were engaged in talks about a peaceful protest, but Roman had other ideas,” she said.

Downs plead guilty to the riot charge shortly after being indicted as part of a plea deal that resulted in the other charges against him being scrubbed. He’s acted as a key state witness in both prior trials.

It’s clear the prosecution will hinge much of their case on the letter — allegedly sent to Downs months after the riot.

“‘This (the riot) had to happen, nothing comes close to this mission,’” Ms. Warner said, reading the letter to the jurors.

Defense statement

During his opening argument, Mr. Collins pressed jurors to consider three main concepts as they weighed the state’s evidence against his client: that Shankaras must first be presumed innocent as he sits in court, the burden to prove otherwise rests “100 percent” with the state and the standard to which they must prove his guilt must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Candidly, Mr. Collins noted that he and his client don’t plan on disputing many of the prosecution’s points. For instance, he said the handwriting analyst the state plans on calling to the stand to tie the letters to Shankaras is unnecessary because he doesn’t deny writing them.

However, he urged the jurors to weigh the testimony of Downs carefully.

Characterizing him as self-serving, Mr. Collins claims that within minutes of leaving C Building before it was breached by law enforcement, Downs told authorities: “I’ll tell you everything, get me a prosecutor, I want to make a deal.”

“Make of him what you will,” Mr. Collins said to the jury about Downs. “But, as you will see, Royal Downs is motivated by one thing only, and that is his total, complete dedication to Royal Downs.”

Though not getting into the specifics of his defense, Mr. Collins said jurors would come to understand “how and why” Shankaras wrote the letters in questions. It would also become clear to the jury that Downs went to great lengths — like smuggling the letters out of prison for safe-keeping — to ensure he obtained appropriate leverage to “strike a deal,” claimed Mr. Collins.

Downs is expected to take the stand in the coming days, followed by the survivors of the riot.

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