WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — One of three inmates on trial for a deadly Delaware prison riot was found guilty of murder Tuesday, the first verdicts in a case that will involve 17 inmates over the next several months.
A New Castle County jury found Dwayne Staats, 37, guilty of felony first-degree murder, first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, two counts of assault, four counts of kidnapping and second-degree conspiracy.
The jury found Jarreau Ayers, also 37, not guilty of murder but convicted him on the same additional charges that Staats faced.
Deric Forney, 29, was found not guilty on all charges.
Perry Phelps, commissioner of the state Department of Correction, called Tuesday’s verdicts “a long-awaited step toward healing and closure. We extend our most sincere gratitude to the members of the jury who put their lives and families on hold to thoughtfully listen to and evaluate the evidence presented to them.”
Ben Gifford, the attorney representing Forney, didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking reaction to the verdict. Staats and Ayers represented themselves in the trial.
All three defendants were charged with first-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy after the February 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, the state’s maximum-security prison. Staats and Ayers are both convicted killers serving life sentences.
Sgt. Steven Floyd was killed during the 20-hour uprising. Two other officers were beaten and tormented by inmates before being released. Response teams eventually used a backhoe to breach a wall and rescue a female counselor. She was not injured.
Prosecutors argued that the three defendants should be convicted of murder under Delaware’s “accomplice liability” law, even if none of them inflicted the cuts or blows that killed Floyd. Under accomplice liability, if two or more people join to commit a crime, such as riot, and it is reasonably foreseeable that it could lead to a second crime, such as murder, all can be held responsible for the second crime, even if it was unintended.
“There was a riot. Sergeant Floyd ended up dead,” prosecutor John Downs told jurors. “The 16 defendants who were charged with murder did not all murder Sergeant Floyd … but the people working together to commit the assaults, to commit the riot, are responsible for the actions of others.”
The defense countered that prosecutors had no DNA or fingerprint evidence, and that their case was built entirely on conflicting statements from other inmates possibly trying to curry favor in hopes of improving their chances to win appeals or to be treated better in prison.
The inmates’ testimony for the prosecution was often at odds with statements they made to investigators after the riot, or conflicted with testimony from other inmates.
Inmates had staged peaceful protests over their treatment and conditions at the prison in the months before the riot.
Ayers acknowledged talking to convicted murderer Royal Downs, a key prosecution witness who pleaded guilty to riot, about staging another protest. Ayers suggested two options for getting prison administrators’ attention: refusing to come in from the recreation yard or staying on the prison tier and refusing to lock into their cells.
“I knew something was going to happen. I never lied to y’all about that,” Ayers told jurors. “I didn’t know the extent of anything. … Me knowing that something was going on is different from me planning.”
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. Earlier this month, 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.
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