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State drops remaining Vaughn riot charges, ending trials


There will be no more trials connected to the deadly 2017 Vaughn prison uprising.


The Delaware Department of Justice is dropping the remaining charges pending against inmates allegedly involved in the February 2017 riot at the Smyrna facility that resulted in the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd.



Prosecutors have failed to secure convictions in the majority of cases brought to trial.


Only inmates Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz and Lawrence Michaels were left to be tried after the state dropped charges against six of the remaining defendants in March. Several charges were also pending against Obadiah Miller. A jury failed to reach a decision on several charges against both Miller and John Bramble in February. The state dropped pending charges against Bramble in April, according to DOJ.


Eight of the 18 inmates originally indicted went to trial. Sixteen were charged with murder as well as assault, kidnapping, conspiracy and riot. Prosecutors only secured convictions against defendants Dwayne Staats and Jarreau Ayers, with only Staats convicted of murder. Juries fully acquitted four inmates.

In a statement released Wednesday,  Department of Justice (DOJ) officials called the work of investigators and prosecutors “herculean.” They also called the prosecutors on this trial, who included Deputy Attorneys General Nichole Warner, John Downs and Brian Robertson, “some of DOJ’s best.”

“Nevertheless,” DOJ officials wrote, “three juries have since shown that proving beyond a reasonable doubt who was responsible for Lt. Floyd’s death is no longer possible. Therefore, prosecutors have advised the Court that the State will not move forward with any further pending charges in connection with the Vaughn riot.”

“We know the decision to dismiss the charges against the remaining defendants in the Vaughn riot trials was not reached easily,” outgoing Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps said in a statement. “The Department of Correction admires the perseverance and commitment demonstrated by the prosecutors and respects the resolution of the case. The DOC Family will continue to honor the life, service and legacy of Steven Floyd and will ensure his sacrifice is never forgotten.”

In their statement, DOJ officials said “Obtaining a measure of justice for Lt. Steven Floyd meant spending almost two years trying to piece together what happened in the building with no physical, video, or audio evidence, using only statements from more than a hundred inmates who were both suspects and witnesses.”

An independent review of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center shortly after the 2017 riot there decried the facility’s lack of cameras. DOC said in March it had since added more than 700 cameras.

During the three trials that occurred, defense attorneys consistently questioned the credibility and motivation of the inmate witnesses, particularly Royal Downs, who the prosecution relied on.


The latest inmate tried was Roman Shankaras, who was fully acquitted last month.


“In my opinion, the physical evidence or lack of physical evidence was not a significant issue in the case,” said Shankaras’ lawyer, Patrick Collins, after the jury gave their verdict. “I think the bigger issue was that there were significant credibility issues and motivation issues with Royal Downs. And I think the case probably came down to kind of a showdown of do you believe Royal Downs or do you believe Roman Shankaras.”


DOJ’s statement says “Prosecutors offered no favorable treatment in exchange for that testimony, and the inmate witnesses not only risked their own safety but lost out on opportunities for counseling or work programs because they had to be housed apart from other inmates. The trial team appreciates their willingness to try to help bring justice in these cases, and rejects any implication that any witness was pressured to testify.”


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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