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First Vaughn prison riot trial begins

James Morrison
Delaware Public Media

The first trial of inmates allegedly involved in last year’s riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center began Monday at Superior Court in Wilmington.


Roman Shankaras, Jarreau Ayers, Dwayne Staats and Deric Forney are the initial set of defendants charged with the murder of Correctional Officer Lt. Steven Floyd, as well as assault, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy.

In her opening statement, Deputy Attorney General Nichole Warner called the alleged attack by inmates on Feb. 1 2017  "vicious, tragically effective and ... planned.”

She showed an image of Floyd as he was found, face-down and handcuffed in two inches of water. She said the autopsy revealed he died of multiple stab wounds and blunt force injuries.


The prosecution played recordings of negotiations that took place over a radio. Warner claimed the voice was Staats.


Defense attorney Jason Antoine claims his client, Roman Shankaras, did not participate in the murder, assaults or kidnappings. He says he only signed on for a peaceful demonstration and should be acquitted.


Antoine also brought up the issue of a security camera near the recreation yard at the building where the riot occured. The prosecution said there is no video footage of the riot.


Staats and Ayers, who are both currently serving life sentances for first-degree murder, are representing themselves.

They questioned the motives of the state’s inmate witnesses who will testify, claiming they are willing to lie for what they may believe is a chance to go home.

“The only consistent thing about this case is the inconsistencies and contradictions," said Ayers.

Staat said he has been analyzing witness statements for months and has been agitated when he’s seen what he calls "false accusations."

"Their sole purpose getting on the stand is to capitalize on a man's death," said Staat. "Cooporating ... begging the DA to free them ... [but] the only thing they're willing to sacrifice is the innocence of others."


Antoine, defending Shankaras, urged jurors to be sceptical of Royal Downs. Downs, who is currently serving a life sentence for first-degree murder committed in Maryland, will testify as one of the state's witnesses during this first trial. He will be tried himself during one of the subsequent Vaughn trails between Nov. and April.


According to Warner, Downs has plead guilty to riot.


Antoine painted Downs as an influential and manipulative figure within Delaware's prison system.



Witnesses on the first day included Cpl. Roger Cresto, a crime scene investigator with the Delaware State Police homicide unit. He was called by the prosecution.


Cresto presented evidence photographs from Building C where the riot occurred. These included shanks, mop wringers which were allegedly used as weapons, burnt clothing and splatters of blood.

The most graphic photos showed Correctional Officer Lt. Steven Floyd’s body where it was found beneath mattresses in the Sergeant’s Office.


There were also pictures of the mop closet where Floyd was allegedly held and assaulted before he died, and the supply closet where two other correctional officers were allegedly held and assaulted.

Cresto said the standing water in the building had come from the sprinkler system and from sinks and toilets that had been clogged to overflow. 

The prosecution says Correctional Officers Joshua Wilkinson and Winslow Smith who survived the riot will likely testify Tuesday.

Later in the trial, defense attorney Antoine plans to call James Aiken as on of his primary witnesses. Aiken has over four decades of experience in the administration, operation, and management of correctional facilities and has served as an expert witness on corrections and prison conditions in state and district courts. 


Antoine says that Aiken will testify that demonstrations common in "failing prisons."





The eighteen inmates facing charges relating to the Vaughn riot will be tried in five separate trials likely continuing through the spring. Although the accused inmates are being tried in groups, the jury will offer separate verdicts on each defendant.


This story has been updated.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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