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Delaware: No Convictions in Second Vaughn Riot Trial

by Kevin Bliss

In February 2019, a second trial for prisoners accused of participating in a deadly 2017 riot at Delaware’s James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ended in not guilty verdicts.

Prisoners Abednego Baynes, 25, and Kevin Berry, 27, were acquitted of all charges. The jury hung on two counts against John Bramble, 28, and Obadiah Miller, 25, with the remaining charges against them also resulting in acquittals. 

During the 18-hour uprising, when prisoners took control of Building C – home to 120 of the Vaughn facility’s 2,431 prisoners – Sgt. Steven Floyd was killed. His body was discovered handcuffed inside a closet and lying in several inches of water, his death ruled the result of blunt force trauma and stab wounds. Two other guards, Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson, were handcuffed inside a separate closet from which they were later released and allowed to leave. [See: PLN, April 2018, p.38].

The first trial following the riot, in November 2018, resulted in convictions on 10 separate counts – including one for Floyd’s murder – against prisoner Dwayne Staats, 35. Representing himself, Staats had admitted guilt only to conspiring to take over the prison, which he claimed was an attempt to make Governor John Carney aware of poor conditions and abuse by guards. 

At the same trial, prisoner Jarreau Ayers, 36, whom prosecutors characterized as Staats’ facilitator in the riot, was convicted on eight counts, though none involved the murder of Sgt. Floyd. Deric Forney, a 29-year-old prisoner alleged to be a “soldier” in Staats’ plan, was acquitted of all charges.

The seven defendants who have gone to trial thus far are the first of 18 prisoners indicted after the uprising. Royal Downs, a 53-year-old serving a life sentence for murder, pleaded guilty in December 2017 to charges of kidnapping and riot, but he was not charged with Floyd’s murder. His plea deal was sealed until the first trial, when it was revealed that he had agreed to testify against the other 17 prisoners in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

In both trials, evidence was lacking. No security cameras covered the building in which the riot occurred. DNA samples could not be connected to any defendant at trial except Miller, whose DNA matched samples taken from the janitor’s closet where Floyd died – a room to which Miller had access to perform janitorial duties for Building C, rendering the samples insufficient to establish his guilt in the murder.

As a result, the prosecution relied heavily on testimony from other prisoners, especially Downs, whose credibility was attacked when he changed his testimony at the second trial from what he told jurors during the first one. Bramble’s attorney, Thomas Pedersen, observed that the prosecution’s witnesses “have told so many different stories ... so many contradictions that I don’t know how they will convince any jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Prosecutors now must decide whether to retry Bramble and Miller on the charges that resulted in hung juries. Another two trials are still scheduled for the remaining prisoners indicted after the riot – which others say was brewing for years as prison officials ignored pleas for more respectful treatment from guards, more and better drug counseling and treatment, and improved access to medical care and educational opportunities such as earning high school or college degrees.

“We’ve been trying to reach out – pushing the pen – and it was like no one was hearing us,” said one Vaughn prisoner, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation. “We’ve been crying out for years.”

Bruce A. Rogers, an attorney for the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD), said the riot followed a number of peaceful protests inside Vaughn, when prisoners refused to obey commands or to line up for counts. Outnumbered 75 to one, guards feared that the frustrated prisoners may erupt in violence. 

“Some of the CO’s have said to me that, ‘We walk into the prison on any given day and we are the only ones that are not armed,’” Rogers stated. “They take that seriously.”

Part of Downs’ testimony that changed between the two trials related to homemade knives – or “shivs” – that other prisoners allegedly carried during the riot. After the second trial ended badly for prosecutors with no guilty verdicts, COAD president Geoff Klopp said, “It doesn’t feel like justice is being served.” 

Apparently, he doesn’t know how jury trials work.

In contrast, Berry’s attorney, Andrew Witherall, declared: “It is always heartbreaking when there is a death involved, but when it comes to our client, this was the just and right outcome.” 



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