Updated: 9:49 p.m.
An inmate on trial in connection with a February 2017 prison riot that led to the death of a correctional officer told jurors Tuesday he organized the uprising.
Dwayne Staats, who is already is serving a life sentence for murder, said he initiated the deadly siege at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. Lt. Steven Floyd died from blunt force and stabbing injuries in the chaos.
Two other correctional officers and a counselor also were taken hostage.
Staats, who is representing himself, said he didn’t intend that anyone be killed. He rounded up older inmates serving life with “nothing to lose” to take officers hostage because filing grievances and staging peaceful protests did nothing to change conditions in the prison.
“These petitions, grievances, lawsuits, peaceful protests — in my mind, all that stuff ran their course. I try to tell my family what’s going on, they can’t really understand the gravity of things. A lot of people’s families didn’t know what was going on until the prison got lifted from obscurity,” he said.
“A lot of things weren’t being addressed until that happened. A lot of COs, civilian workers, they started speaking out after they felt comfortable, they might have been relieved. So, I wanted to put attention on the prison because everybody was oblivious to what was going on.”
Of the 126 inmates in the C Building where the riot broke out — and of the 18 inmates indicted — only six were involved, Staats said. He said he knows who assaulted the officers, but he will not identify them.
Staats is on trial with Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney. They and 13 other inmates are charged with murder, assault, kidnapping, riot, and conspiracy. Two other inmates face lesser charges.
Over the next several months, multiple 12-member juries will be chosen for the trials of four defendants at a time. Each trial is expected to last about four weeks.
From peaceful protest to deadly chaos
During his testimony, Staats said he turned the other inmates’ peaceful protest into a siege, and “someone took the takeover and turned it into a murder.”
Admitting he assisted in taking the female counselor hostage, he said he asked another inmate to protect her from other prisoners.
Prosecutor John Downs grilled Staats, asking, if he had the power to protect the counselor, why he didn’t do anything to prevent Floyd’s brutal assault.
Earlier in the day, Ayers, who also is representing himself and is already serving a life sentence for murder, testified he had agreed to protest peacefully in an effort to negotiate better treatment for inmates. He said he didn’t know it would turn deadly.
Risking punishment was worth a peaceful protest if it would improve the conditions for future inmates.
“At least the administration will look into the officers, look into what’s going on. And people coming behind us, they’re going to have better living conditions,” Ayers told the jury. “I have no problem with being spokesperson, a leader or whatever they want to categorize me as. I accepted whatever was coming with it.”
“It wasn’t right Floyd died,” Ayers added later. “Bad things happen when you have good intentions. It was a bad thing that took place.”
Prior to his testimony, Ayers called on fellow inmates as witnesses to testify they didn’t see him wearing a mask, holding any knives or wearing bloodstained clothes during the takeover. However, one inmate also testified that Ayers was telling individuals if they could leave the building, and had a list of individuals who were qualified to leave.
At the end of the day, Forney, who is serving an 11 year sentence on weapons charges, testified he wasn’t a part of any kind of protest — peaceful or otherwise. Ayers and Staats also testified he did not participate in the prison riot. On the stand, Forney said he stayed in his cell during the siege. He wiped back tears as he recalled being afraid for his life when police stormed the prison, fearing they would kill him.
Earlier in the day, a motion to acquit Forney on several charges was denied by the judge.