Second trial begins for inmates in Delaware prison riot

Four people are charged with murder, kidnapping and other crimes in the February 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. (File/WHYY)

Four people are charged with murder, kidnapping and other crimes in the February 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. (File/WHYY)

The second in a series of trials for 18 inmates charged in a deadly Delaware prison riot began Monday with defense attorneys telling jurors that prosecutors will rely on testimony from convicted criminals who can’t be trusted.

Obadiah Miller, 26, John Bramble, 29, Kevin Berry, 28 and Abednego Baynes, 26, are all charged with murder, kidnapping and other crimes in the February 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, during which prison guard Steven Floyd was killed and three other staffers were taken hostage.

Prosecutors are relying heavily on testimony from some of the 108 other inmates who were in the building at Delaware’s maximum-security prison during the riot but were not among the 18 who were charged.

Prosecutors have little physical evidence that would tie any of the defendants to a particular crime, but deputy attorney general Nichole Warner told jurors that Miller’s DNA was found in a mop room where Floyd was held and beaten.

Miller’s attorney, Anthony Figliola, suggested that it would not be unusual to find Miller’s DNA in the mop room because he had been granted the privilege of a prison job.

“He was not a long-timer. He was not one of the guys who had nothing to lose by causing the prison uprising,” added Figliola, who said prosecutors will use the “accomplice liability” theory to try to convict the defendants.

“It’s sort of like, ‘He really didn’t do it, but his buddy did, and he knew about it,'” he explained.

Figliola and other defense attorneys also told jurors they can expect conflicting and unsubstantiated testimony against their clients, suggesting that inmates who were not charged have made deals or have something to gain by testifying for the prosecution.

“Do not trust the wicked,” Bramble’s attorney, Tom Pedersen, told jurors after reciting a child’s fable about a farmer fatally bitten by a snake he had saved from freezing to death.

Similarly, Pedersen said, the prosecution’s case boils down to “the testimony of snakes from C building at James T. Vaughn.” Pedersen’s remark prompted Warner to call for a sidebar discussion between the judge and attorneys before Pedersen resumed his remarks, telling jurors that the prosecution has “less than quality evidence.”

“You are going to hear a dizzying array of contradictions,” he said, adding that the prosecution’s approach will be to “try to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.”

The first witness called by prosecutors was Sgt. Jeffrey Smith, a state police evidence supervisor.

Smith narrated as prosecutors showed clips of video he took at the prison after response teams ended a nearly 20-hour standoff by using a backhoe to breach a wall and rescue a female counselor. Two other guards had been released earlier after being beaten and tormented by inmates.

Smith’s video included shots of Floyd’s battered body, lying handcuffed in a pool of bloody water, under a pile of mattresses in a sergeant’s office, as well as blood spatters on the walls of the mop room.

Before the uprising, inmates had staged peaceful protests over their treatment and conditions at the prison.

A review ordered by Democratic Gov. John Carney found that Department of Correction officials’ dismissal of warnings about trouble brewing reflected an overcrowded, understaffed facility plagued by mismanagement, poor communication, a culture of negativity and adversarial relationships among prison staff, administrators and inmates.

Since the riot, state officials have devoted millions of dollars to security upgrades, staff training, improved programming for inmates and salary increases for correctional officers. In November, officials announced that hundreds of inmates would be transferred to Pennsylvania in an effort to reduce mandatory overtime in the severely understaffed guard ranks at Vaughn.

Meanwhile, the first trial of inmates charged in the case ended with one, Dwayne Staats, convicted of murder in Floyd’s death.

Staats testified that he planned the uprising, knowing that it could be violent and that he recruited six other inmates to carry it out, but he denied assaulting anyone and said Floyd’s death was not part of the plan.

Staats’s co-defendant, Jarreau Ayers, was acquitted of murder but was convicted along with Staats of kidnapping, assault and other crimes.

A third defendant, Deric Forney, was acquitted on all charges.

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