Vaughn riot trial: State’s star witness grilled about plea agreement

WILMINGTON — Royal Downs, an inmate clothed in bright orange with “DOC” emblazoned on his back, stepped down from the stand on Wednesday after three days of testimony — the longest of any witness thus far in the Vaughn prison riot trial.

Downs, himself charged with kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting in connection with the prison uprising, has been called the state’s “star witness” several times by defendants.

Of the 18 inmates accused of involvement in the deadly riot, he’s the only one to have pleaded guilty.

During the prosecution’s questioning Downs claimed to have assisted with negotiations during the riot. He cast himself as someone with considerable clout among fellow inmates who intervened only to “save lives.”

During the cross-examination, the defense sought to undermine Downs’s portrayal of the riot. They also attempted to advance the assertion that Downs was an active participant in the riot and that he has systematically deceived the prosecution and investigators in hopes of gaining leniency.

Focusing in on a plea agreement and a letter from so-called “jail house lawyer” Augustus “Hebrew” Evans, the defense attempted to paint Downs’s testimony as tailor-made to bargain with prosecutors in a way that could not only shelter him from the riot charges he faces, but ultimately result in his release from prison.

Royal Downs

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 Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of three counts of murder in the first degree.

Inmate Roman Shankaras was also part of the original group of four, but was severed from the trial on Tuesday owing to a “deteriorating” relationship with his defense attorney Jason Antoine.

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

‘Peaceful protest’

Downs’s account of the riot gave jurors the first version of the events of Feb. 1, 2017, from inside C Building, the site of the riot.

By his account, he’d been aware of a planned protest among some of the inmates in C Building and took part in several “meetings” to help orchestrate it.

However, it was supposed to be a peaceful one limited to refusing to return from the recreation yard when called.

Downs said he became aware that the plan had changed after witnessing masked inmates storm C Building when Lt. Steven Floyd opened the door to let inmates in from the yard.

He says he heard Lt. Floyd screaming “code one” (assault on an officer). Downs claims he stayed in the yard to avoid getting caught up in the violence, until later being called into the building by an inmate after it had been taken over.

Generally, he noted that the building was in disarray, but he claims he tried to keep mostly to himself and check on a few fellow inmates with whom he regularly associated.

“It was chaos, everyone was just doing what they wanted to,” said Downs. “Guys were treating it like an opportunity to really let their hair down.”

Eventually, Downs said he decided to get involved in the negotiations to help resolve the situation.

“I waited, but no one else stood up,” he said.

Working with the other inmates, he claims he helped negotiate the release of Winslow Smith (one of the three correctional officers taken hostage and beaten) in exchange for restoring water, electricity and the phones in the building.

Over the course of his testimony, Downs said that he directly witnessed several of the other 18 indicted inmates engage in the riot and accompanying violence.

As for the defendants currently on trial, he testified that he observed Forney putting on a mask before the first attack on Lt. Floyd and Staats conducting negotiations while wielding a shank.

Later in the evening, he claims to have witnessed two separate attacks on Lt. Floyd, one in the mop closet where the officer was being held hostage and the other outside the sergeant’s office (near where Lt. Floyd was eventually found dead).

In the mop closet he said he saw a group of inmates including Obadiah Miller and Jonatan Rodriguez “cutting” and “choking” Lt. Floyd. He said the second attack came in the early morning hours when a group of inmates dragged Lt. Floyd from the closet and beat him with a fire extinguisher while he lay motionless on the floor.

Eventually, Downs said he chose to leave the building in the last “wave” of inmates released around 5 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2017. He claimed because of a “reputation” he’d had with the Department of Correction administration and because he’d been part of the negotiations, he suspected he would get killed if the building were stormed by law enforcement.

Again citing his “reputation,” he said he suspected early on that he would be charged with involvement in the riot whether or not he’d ever “picked up a walkie talkie or not.”

Plea agreement

During cross-examination, much was made of Downs’s plea agreement with the state. Staats, Ayers and Mr. Gifford all pursued a line of questioning that suggested Downs has intentions to use his cooperation with the prosecution in the case to get leniency in regards to his original murder conviction in Maryland.

Downs is currently serving a natural life sentence and is in Delaware on an interstate compact agreement.

During his cross-examination, Mr. Gifford went through Downs’s plea agreement line by line, noting what he would have faced if he had pleaded not guilty like the rest of the inmates charged with the riot.

Between the four counts of kidnapping, riot and conspiracy, he would have faced a potential maximum sentence of 105 years. With his signed plea deal, that’s been relegated to a much smaller possible sentence of zero to three years.

The transcript of a phone conversation in January 2017 — three days before the riot — with his then “fiancée” referred to as Tracy also revealed that a development in his original Maryland murder conviction lead Downs to believe that there’s a chance it could be overturned with the help of a lawyer.

It came to light during questioning that Tracy was a former correctional officer at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center who was fired in 2006 because of a “romantic relationship” she had with Downs.

Mr. Gifford pressed Downs repeatedly on the status of his current natural life sentence, prospects for obtaining parole and any deals made with the prosecution for his cooperation in the riot case.

Though Downs says he plans to file an appeal regarding his murder conviction, he continually denied that his plea agreement would have any bearing on it.

Jailhouse lawyer’s advice

During both Mr. Gifford’s and Ayers’s cross-examination much was made of a letter confiscated from Downs’s cell in February shortly after the riot. Downs confirmed that the document contained advice from so-called “jailhouse lawyer” Augustus “Hebrew” Evans.

Downs met Evans in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) he was moved to after the riot. Downs claims the advice was unsolicited.

“I didn’t expect him to write it all up, but he did after I just had a conversation with him about my situation,” said Downs.

Ayers went through the document section by section, attempting to illustrate how Downs seemingly treated the advice like a how-to guide to cajole and curry favor with authorities to ultimately obtain the best outcome for himself at the expense of the other charged inmates.

Pointing to several letters Downs wrote to DOC personnel including then Vaughn prison Warden Philip Parker.

The letters, professing his innocence, were “seeds that should be planted,” advised Evans.

After going over several examples, Ayers asked Downs directly if he agreed that the document from Evans read like an exact “manuscript” he followed in order to obtain a favorable outcome ahead of charges being filed.

“It may look like that, but it wasn’t,” said Downs.

Witness testimony for the prosecution is expected to continue in the high-stakes trial this morning.

 

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