Jury deliberations set in trial over fatal Del. prison riot
All three defendants were charged with first-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy following the riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center
By Randall Chase
WILMINGTON, Del. — Jurors are set to begin deliberating Friday in the trial of three Delaware inmates charged in a deadly prison riot.
The jury heard closing arguments Thursday in the trial of Jarreau Ayers and Dwayne Staats, both 37, and Deric Forney, 29. The three are the first among 17 inmates charged in the February 2017 riot to be tried. The others will be tried in groups over the next several months.
All three defendants were charged with first-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy following the riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, the state's maximum-security prison. Staats and Ayers, both convicted killers serving life sentences, are acting as their own attorneys.
Correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed during the 20-hour uprising. Two other officers were beaten and tormented by inmates before being released. Response teams eventually used a backhoe to breach a wall and rescue a female counselor. She was not injured.
Prosecutors argued that the three defendants should be convicted of murder under Delaware's "accomplice liability" law, even if none of them inflicted the cuts or blows that killed Floyd. Under accomplice liability, if two or more people join to commit a crime, such as riot, and it is reasonably foreseeable that it could lead to a second crime, such as murder, all can be held responsible for the second crime, even if it was unintended.
"There was a riot. Sergeant Floyd ended up dead," prosecutor John Downs told jurors.
"The 16 defendants who were charged with murder did not all murder Sergeant Floyd ... but the people working together to commit the assaults, to commit the riot, are responsible for the actions of others," Downs added.
The defense countered that prosecutors have no DNA or fingerprint evidence, and that their case is built entirely on conflicting statements from other inmates possibly trying to curry favor in hopes of improving their chances to win appeals or to be treated better in prison.
The inmates' testimony for the prosecution was often at odds with statements they made to investigators after the riot, or conflicted with testimony from other inmates.
"All we have our witness statements? Are you serious?" asked Forney's attorney, Ben Gifford.
Forney, serving an 11-year sentence on gun and drug charges, has denied any role in the uprising, although two inmates who were not charged testified that they saw him wearing a mask and assaulting one of the guards.
Gifford pointed out that the inmates who rioted had several hours to plan what they would say or do afterward to avoid culpability, and that prosecution witnesses have been held in custody together.
"You don't think anybody talked to figure out what the story was going to be?" asked Gifford. He also questioned the seeming lack of interest by investigators in trying to find physical evidence that might help determine who actually killed Floyd.
"Sergeant Floyd didn't deserve what happened to him, but he also didn't deserve this investigation," he said.
Staats called the police investigation "deficient."
"I know it's not realistic, but y'all don't have to find me guilty of nothing," said Staats, who previously testified that he planned the uprising, knowing that it could be violent, and that he recruited six other inmates to carry it out. He has denied assaulting anyone and said Floyd's death was not part of the plan.
"My goal was to do something to expose this place to where the public and the government would take notice. I say I got their attention," Staats testified Wednesday.
In the weeks and months leading up to the riot, inmates had staged peaceful protests over their treatment and conditions at the prison.
Ayers acknowledged talking to convicted murderer Royal Downs, a key prosecution witness who pleaded guilty to riot, about staging another protest. Refusing to come in from the recreation yard or staying on the prison tier and refusing to lock into their cells were two options to get the attention of prison administrators, Ayers suggested.
"I knew something was going to happen. I never lied to y'all about that," Ayers told jurors Thursday. "I didn't know the extent of anything. ... Me knowing that something was going on is different from me planning."
Democratic Gov. John Carney ordered a review after the riot. It found that Department of Correction officials' dismissal of warnings about trouble brewing reflected an overcrowded, understaffed facility plagued by mismanagement, poor communication, a culture of negativity and adversarial relationships among prison staff, administrators and inmates.
Since the riot, state officials have devoted millions of dollars to security upgrades, staff training, improved programming for inmates and salary increases for correctional officers. Last week, they said hundreds of inmates would be transferred to Pennsylvania in an effort to reduce mandatory overtime in the severely understaffed guard ranks at Vaughn.