Twenty months after a hostage-taking and riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center resulted in the death of a correctional officer, the first four inmates who were charged in the case are going on trial.
Testimony began Monday in the trial of Jarreau Ayers, Deric Forney, Roman Shankaras and Dwayne Staats. A total of 18 inmates were charged for their alleged roles in the riot, which killed correctional officer, Lt. Steven Floyd.
In her opening statement, Deputy Attorney General Nichole Whetham Warner described the circumstances in Building C of the Vaughn Prison in February 1st, 2017--a day that "began like any other day."
A group of inmates took it over, "suddenly and violently," Warner said. "The attack was vicious, it was tragically effective, and it was planned."
According to Warner, Floyd opened a door to the prison yard where a number of inmates were taking part in recreation when a group of inmates wearing masks stormed the guards. Officers were attacked with mop wringers and shanks.
Floyd, Warner said, was stuffed into a mop closet while two other officers were locked into a supply closet. Floyd would later be heard warning other responding officers that it was "a trap," according to Warner.
Warner said the exact time of Floyd's death is not known, and that he died of the accumulation of blows and stabbings and not one particular incident. She said the state will contend that Ayers and Forney assaulted the officers, that Shankaras was the mastermind, or the "shot-caller," and that Staats also made some decisions and took part in the assaults. The state also plans to play audio of Staats, who in addition to being a suspect in the assaults, was involved in negotiations broadcast over radio and played at the time of the riot by WDEL.
Jason Antoine, the attorney for Shankaras, in his opening statement said his client was innocent and that Shankaras was in the yard at the time Floyd was killed. Antoine added that his client, while in the yard, was told by another inmate that previous discussion of was to be a peaceful demonstration regarding prison conditions was replaced with a plan of a violent overthrow.
"He didn't sign up for murder," Antoine said, who added that the riot had been planned by other inmates in protest of alleged inconsistent policies, mistreatment of inmates, and "a couple of bad apple guards in Building C."
"All my client wanted was to be treated with dignity." Antoine added.
Two of the initial group of four inmates, Staats and Ayers, are representing themselves.
Staats told jurors that inmates who would testify for the state are "opportunists," who would present "fabrications" and "exaggerations."
"At this moment, I'm presumed innocent," Staats said, asking the jurors to carry out "due process."
Ayers meanwhile, said that although the burden of proof is on the state,"I've got to fight for my innocence." He also implied that inmate witnesses are working with the state for their own benefit.
“I’m going to point out every single lie, every single contradiction, every time,” Ayers said.
Ben Gifford, Forney's attorney, also said the reliability of witness testimony will be an issue.
Opening statements lasted just under three hours. Trial is expected to last up to one month.
The first two state witnesses were Delaware State Police homicide investigators who responded after it was learned Floyd's body had been found. Sergeant David Weaver testified that interviews and other evidence helped investigators determine which of the inmates would face charges. Corporal Rodney Cresto described the evidence that was discovered: clothing, scraps of material, wringers, a mop handle, a broom handle, shanks, fire extinguishers - and blood.