Failure of prosecutions in fatal Del. prison riot leads lawyers to question state’s strategy

Delaware charged 18 inmates for a prison riot that left a guard dead. But most cases failed or were dropped, leaving prosecutors with ‘egg on their faces.’

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Sgt. Steven Floyd, who had been a correctional officer for 16 years, was stabbed and beaten to death in the uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. He was posthumously promoted to lieutenant. (WHYY)

Sgt. Steven Floyd, who had been a correctional officer for 16 years, was stabbed and beaten to death in the uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. He was posthumously promoted to lieutenant. (WHYY)

The February 2017 prison uprising in Delaware that ended with correctional Sgt. Steven Floyd stabbed and beaten to death led prosecutors to charge 18 prisoners.

But the prosecution’s gambit ultimately backfired, ending with only three convictions. And this month, after three trials, the state finally threw in the towel, dropping charges against the six remaining defendants.

Juries had shown that proving beyond a reasonable doubt who was responsible for Floyd’s death “is no longer possible,’’ Attorney General Kathy Jennings’ office said in a statement.

Jennings took office in January, succeeding fellow Democrat Matt Denn, whose office brought the indictments.

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In the wake of the state’s resounding defeat in the high-profile case, however, some legal observers question the wisdom of charging so many prisoners when prosecutors lacked video, audio and DNA evidence. Instead, they relied on criminals who were in many cases already serving sentences of life or decades behind bars.

“There was never going to be a way to get a conviction because you are going to have to rely on supposedly tainted testimony of convicted felons ratting on other convicted felons,’’ said attorney Thomas Neuberger, who represented Floyd’s family and three prison workers who had been taken hostage in a civil suit. The state settled their lawsuit for $7.5 million.

“No jury on earth is going to believe that, so yes, why in the world do you indict 18 people? If you had to go through the evidence, you should have picked two or three of your best ones. The decisions ultimately were the responsibility of Matt Denn … If there’s any criticism to be lodged it’s against Matt Denn,” he said.

Denn is a former Delaware insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor who had never been a prosecutor before he was elected attorney general in 2014. He did not seek re-election in 2018.

Denn would not agree to an interview for this story.

‘Lost one of our family members’

Emotions had been raw on Feb. 2 after the 18-hour siege in Building C at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. About 5 a.m. state police had stormed the building and taken control from the prisoners.

Perry Phelps, who had just taken over as Department of Correction commissioner for new Gov. John Carney, fought back tears at a news conference.

“We lost one of our family members and it pains my heart to make these statements. The fourth hostage, Sgt. Steven Floyd, was found unresponsive and at 5:29 … was pronounced dead,” he said.

Carney called the episode “a very sad day across the state of Delaware.”

Robert Coupe, who had been succeeded by Phelps after Carney put him in charge of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, promised that police would “work with the Attorney General’s Office to make sure the appropriate charges are filed and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

Eight months later Denn’s office charged 18 inmates. Sixteen of the prisoners were charged with Floyd’s murder. Other charges included riot, kidnapping and assault. There were to be four separate trials.

But there were no cameras in Building C to record the carnage. No DNA was found. So before the first trial last October, a murderer and gang leader from Baltimore named Royal Downs pleaded guilty to riot and became the star witness against fellow inmates.

“It was a tremendously difficult case for the state using the witnesses they had,’’ said Beth Moskow-Schnoll, who was a federal prosecutor in Delaware for nearly two decades.

“Because remember, they had no cameras in the prison, which is shocking to begin with at a prison like Vaughn, that you are left using inmates as your main witnesses,” Moskow-Schnoll added. 

She theorized that Denn’s office had taken a “scattershot approach’’ in hopes that some of the defendants would testify against the others.

‘State has egg on their faces’

That didn’t happen.

At the first trial Downs’ credibility was attacked relentlessly, and it ended with only one of three defendants found guilty of murder and that inmate testified that he was behind the insurrection.  Another inmate was guilty of lesser charges and a third acquitted.

The second trial began this January as Jennings took office, but none of those four defendants was convicted.

One inmate went to trial this spring but after he was acquitted, Jennings pulled the plug for good.

“Unfortunately people didn’t roll over on other people,’’ Moskow-Schnoll said. “They didn’t really get a lot of inmates who were willing to testify against others.”

Jennings declined an interview with WHYY but her office issued a statement praising police and prosecutors’ devotion and “herculean work” the case.

Wilmington defense attorney Mike Modica, who was not part of the case, said the state’s plans to have inmates flip on each other “didn’t work in this case because they didn’t have enough evidence to scare any of the co-defendants to try to seek a deal with prosecutors.”

Modica said he understands that Denn and later Jennings were under political pressure to punish the culprits, but said “It was a miscalculation because now the state has egg on their faces … It was built on a house of cards and it crumbled and the state is stuck with the residue of that.”

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