Three convicted killers already serving life terms were sentenced Friday for their roles in a deadly riot at Delaware’s maximum-security prison, bringing a close to a lengthy, costly and mostly failed prosecution.
The self-proclaimed mastermind of the February 2017 riot, Dwayne Staats, received two life terms for the murder of Steven Floyd, a guard at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. Staats received another 153 years for assault, kidnapping and riot.
Co-defendant Jarreau Ayers, who was acquitted in Floyd’s death, was sentenced to 123 years for assault, kidnapping and riot.
Former Baltimore gang leader Royal Downs, the prosecution’s star witness, was sentenced to three years for riot. The judge said that for security reasons, Downs will begin that sentence only after finishing a life sentence for murder in Maryland.
Downs played a key role in hostage negotiations during the riot but began cooperating with authorities even before it ended after leaving the building with a group of other inmates. He pleaded guilty to riot shortly after he and 17 other inmates were indicted, 16 of them charged with murder.
With little physical evidence and no surveillance camera footage, prosecutors relied heavily on testimony from other inmates, whose credibility was successfully attacked by defense attorneys. In trials against eight inmates, prosecutors were able to obtain convictions only against Ayers and Staats, both of whom represented themselves. They decided in June to drop the remaining cases .
“I find the not-guilty verdicts that were rendered in these trials disappointing. … It’s frustrating but it will not deter us in the future from doing what is right and seeking justice” said lead prosecutor John Downs.
“Sentenced inmates wanted to be treated nicer, have more phone calls and less restriction on their lives, and decided torture, terror and violence were the way to go. And they’re proud of that. That’s disturbing,” Downs added.
Geoff Klopp, head of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said the case marked “an epic failure by the criminal justice system.”
State taxpayers have been billed more than $1.4 million for defense costs in the case. State officials also agreed to pay more than $7.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of Floyd’s family and six Department of Correction employees.
Staats and Ayers, meanwhile, remained defiant and unrepentant for their roles in the uprising, during which Floyd was killed and fellow guards Joshua Wilkinson and Winslow Smith were beaten and tormented. Patricia May, a female counselor, was held hostage for nearly 20 hours before tactical teams breached the building and rescued her.
“I stand here before you because of my aspiration to eliminate the systemic disorders that plagued James T. Vaughn,” Staats told Judge William Carpenter Jr., adding that inmates were being mistreated and refused to “drown in subjugation.”
Ayers, meanwhile, said he has spent “19 years being tortured.”
“I chose to look the system in the eye and not flinch,” he said, criticizing prosecutor Downs for “trying to get innocent men to flip on righteous men.”
“It’s over man, … your career is finished,” he told Downs.
Floyd’s widow, Saundra, said the riot marked the beginning of an “unimaginable nightmare” from which her family has yet to awaken.
“Words will never be able to express the hurt and pain that it brought my family,” she told Carpenter.
May, a devout Christian, told the court that she wanted to offer forgiveness, and to appeal for DOC officials to bring back prison programs that can help inmates.
“There needs to be forgiveness on both sides of this issue. There needs to be healing,” May said.
Claire DeMatteis, who replaced Perry Phelps as DOC commissioner in July, said her agency has strengthened safety, security and training since the riot, improved internal communications, and invested in technology to help officers do their jobs better.
“There isn’t a day every single officer doesn’t live with this, and we will never let it happen again,” she said.
Before becoming commissioner, DeMatteis, an attorney, had been tasked by Democratic Gov. John Carney with overseeing the state’s response to an independent review Carney ordered after the riot.
The review found that the dismissal by DOC officials of warnings about trouble brewing at the Vaughn prison was indicative of an overcrowded, understaffed facility plagued by mismanagement, poor communication, a culture of negativity, and adversarial relationships among prison staff, administrators and inmates.