No Evidence, No Convictions: Week 1 of the first Vaughn 17 trial

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Breaking Update: Roman Shankaras is no longer part of this trial group. On Tuesday, October 30, the judge severed Shankaras’s case from the other 3 defendants. Shankaras will be rescheduled to a later date. The judge stated that this was because “the relationship between Shankaras and his counsel had deteriorated to a point where it was unfair to the rest of the defendants.”

This summary comes from Philly folks from the Vaughn 17 Support coalition who were present during the first week of the trial, as well as from a crew from D.C. that was able to make 2 ½ days of trial.

To run down the case: On February 1, 2017, inmates at James T. Vaughn Correctional in C Building took over the building to demand modest improvements to their living conditions, including better food and education resources. Since then, the state has pressed blanket charges against 18 prisoners for conspiracy to riot and riot, 2 counts of assault, 4 counts of kidnapping, and 16 of them also face murder charges. Correctional Officer Sergeant Floyd was killed that day, and his family has since received restitution from the state for $7.5 million. One of the 18 prisoners facing charges, Royal “Diamond” Downs, has since flipped to support the prosecution. The other 17 defendants have refused to snitch and are contesting the charges in solidarity with one another.

On Monday, October 22, the trial began with opening statements. The state attempts to described how three guards were attacked with a mop wringer and and held hostage in a supply closet. The state admitted they have no surveillance footage of the uprising, no DNA or forensic evidence, and that their case would rely largely on snitch testimony and radio recordings which were extremely difficult to understand when played in court.

The prosecution alleges Jarreau Ayers’ involvement based on a phone call made on January 31, 2017 in which he said “something big is going to happen”. The allegations go further to say he attacked a guard and “gave orders”. Of Deric Forney, the state alleges only in passing that he “assaulted officers.” The state alleges that Dwayne Staats was involved with hostage negotiations over the radio. Snitch testimony is also expected to claim Staats was seen with a ‘shank’ (a homemade knife). The state claims that Roman Shankaras is the alleged “mastermind” and “shot caller” of the uprising. The basis for this is a (contested) letter he wrote after the incident to Royal Downs; the state admits that Shankaras “didn’t assault anyone.”

Representing himself, Dwayne Staats emphasized in his opening statement that the government has no direct evidence of guilt, and cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Contesting state witnesses’ claims, Staats said: “They begging the DA for freedom, but the only thing they’re willing to sacrifice is the freedom of others.” Staats noted that the case against him was based on “falsifications, confabulations, exaggerations.” He warned jurors about the “collage of misinformation that’s going to be presented to you” and that prosecutors are “going to bombard you with inconsistencies and contradictions.”

In his opening statement, defendant Jarreau Ayers, also representing himself, refuted the state’s incorrect claims about his whereabouts that day. He pointed out the lack of credibility of prisoners who would “lie to make a deal.” Ayers told the jury to think outside of “social conformity” that pressures people to “choose the side of the state. […] I’m’a expose that they can’t just pick & choose who the bad guys are.” Ayers also challenged the institution itself: “The state carries the illusion of prestige and I respectfully decline to acknowledge it.” He reminded the jury to see through this “level of prestige where I can just show you something because I’m the state…don’t allow the magnifying glass or the lights being so bright distract you from what is right.”

The two lawyers were not quite as much in solidarity with clients. They did not challenge the grounds of the charges. Instead they argued that their respective clients are not guilty because of reasonable doubt. Jason Antoine’s opening statement (representing Roman Shankaras), which went into exhaustive detail contesting the prosecution’s statements, demonstrated major overall gaps in the prosecution’s case. Shankaras’ defense pointed out he was either in the rec yard or in his cell during all the violence; he did not participate. The defense also pointed out the presence of a security camera that could have captured Shankaras’ presence in the rec yard while the prison takeover happened inside. The state claims no video exists because their cameras can only work in one location at once. According to his defense attorney, Roman Shankaras is being charged because “he will not snitch but he is a witness.”

Ben Gifford (representing Deric Forney) gave an in-depth refresher on reasonable doubt, directed to the jury in his opening statement. This solidified the notion that the state will not be able to provide enough evidence to decisively prove any of the defendants’ guilt, and challenged the prosecution’s attempted strategy of finding certain defendants, such as Forney, guilty by association.

State witnesses this week included:
– Sergeant Weaver, state police forensic investigator who helped prepare reports for identifying suspects for Floyd’s death
– Delaware State Police Corporal Roger Cresto, homicide unit crime scene investigator
– Winslow Smith, the first hostage to be released during negotiations
– Joshua Wilkinson, the other guard to be held hostage and released
– Jordan Peters, a guard who was on “outside patrol” in a vehicle before responding to Building C after the uprising began
– Lieutenant Sennett
– The Forensic Nurse Examiner who examined CO Joshua Wilkinson
– Robert Ferguson, the guard assigned to Building C where the uprising took place
– Brett Smith, crisis negotiator with CERT
– Patricia May, the counselor assigned to Building C who was taken hostage but not harmed by prisoners

None of the above witnesses could identify any prisoners involved, or if they tried to, it was contradicted by transcripts from their interviews with investigators right after the event.

State witnesses admitted they do not know:
– what ‘shanks’ were used to kill Sgt. Floyd
– who used these shanks
– who made the shanks
– when or where the shanks were made
– where the materials used to make the shanks came from
What has been consistent throughout all the testimony is just how bad conditions are at James T. Vaughn. While this shouldn’t be a surprise, we should be paying attention to these details.

1. Every staff member at the prison is also a CO, though not all are active in that role. Stationary Fireman Matthew McCall testified that overtime is abundant that way, and bragged that he participated in plenty of “shakedowns”, when COs forcibly go through an inmates belongings and take whatever they want as contraband.

2. McCall also testified to the physical state of C Building as “fallen in disrepair…a long time ago”, which was why they were there that morning, to add chemicals to the water boiler which had developed leaks. Photographs of the basement depicted a run down space with pools of water on the floor.

3. The inmate treatment was repeatedly described as “terrible” but at the same time normalized. For example, CO Owen Hammond testified that when the SFs first exited the basement on to the first floor, “we saw a busted mop ringer and blood on the floor but didn’t think much of it and continued on our way.” Then SF Justin Tuxford testified that at first he thought the person locked in the supply closet was an inmate because sometimes you had to “use proper force, if all you have is a supply closet.” (That person turned out to be Sergeant Floyd.) The prisoners had released a list of demands, which McCall testified as “weird,” including “education and stuff like that.” The nonchalance of prison staff statements are only matched by the crassness of what they mean.

4. Prisoners released 22 demands, and tried to get those out to the media and Governor Carney, but prison staff completely and effectively ignored them with militarized suppression. The demands included better treatment with dignity, better food, access to programs, education, contact with family and friends, a pay increase to at least $5 a month (they were not being paid anything for their work, effectively providing slave labor), fair and impartial disciplinary hearings, and a grievance process, as well as 13 others [see https://decarceratepa.info/voices/vaughn-prisoners-release-demands-wake-prison-uprising].

On Friday morning, we heard the first prisoner witness called by the state, Anthony Morrow. He had since been transferred to another facility, but not until after being held in the solitary housing unit (SHU) for a year and 5 days following the Vaughn uprising. The state opened for him by playing a recording of a phone call to his fiancé that he on when the uprising started. He described that Floyd is getting “stabbed up” and she asks, babe, whyyy? Morrow said, you don’t understand — “these cops be oppressive, spraying them, beatin them up, talkin about they parents.” The state repeatedly asked if Morrow saw anyone, and if he could identify any of the inmates involved, but he repeatedly denied it. Morrow had briefly seen Floyd getting mob rushed, but could not identify anyone involved in the assault. More specifically, Morrow called defendant Deric Forney his “brother” — they had done Bible study together and lived across from one another — and, noting that he “would recognize [Forney] anywhere,” testified that Forney had not been present at the scene of assault.

On Friday afternoon, state “star witness” Royal Downs began his testimony, which was vague and somewhat inconsistent. Downs’s story so far is that other prisoners kept coming to him to discuss, at first, a peaceful protest, and then a building takeover, and that he was opposed to it from the beginning. He identified Ayers and Shankaras as the prisoners who told him the night before that the building takeover was happening, and testified that Ayers, Shankaras, Staats, along with Pedro Chairez, Lawrence Michaels, and “a couple others, I don’t remember” were the ones who planned the uprising.

By the end of Friday afternoon, tensions appeared high between Jason Antoine (counsel for Roman Shankaras) and Judge Carpenter, as well as between Antoine and the other defense counsel and between Antoine and Shankaras himself. On Monday, court was canceled due to “legal issues,” and on Tuesday the judge announced that Shankaras’s trial was being rescheduled due to issues with his attorney.

So far, no evidence beyond cooperating witness testimony – no video, no DNA or forensics – directly ties any defendant to Floyd’s killing. All prisoner witnesses were all considered potential suspects at one time and the defense has already pointed out their motivations to offer dishonest testimony to cut a deal with the state.

It is also plausible that CO witnesses in the Vaughn Uprising case have been colluding to change their testimony to back each other up, since cross-examination showed this week that the state has not tried to prevent them from doing so. But the fact that the state has no hard evidence against these Vaughn 17 defendants does not mean that they will not be successful in manipulating the trial as though they have a case.

Court is ongoing every weekday from 10am-5pm in Courtroom 8B at 500 N King St, Wilmington, DE. More court support is welcome!

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