Second Vaughn 17 Trial: End of First Week

After failing to present any substantive evidence all week and then seeing their star witness devastatingly discredited under cross-examination on Friday, one might think the prosecution for the Vaughn 17 case would be going home this weekend and discussing how to quietly drop the charges against the remaining prisoners charged with alleged involvement in the February 2017 uprising at Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that the state will again draw out its proceedings for at least an additional three weeks in an attempt to convince an obedient jury of the defendants’ guilt, despite having almost nothing to show for its two-year investigation other than its own culpability.

Wednesday of this week saw testimony from a correctional officer working as a fireman at the time of the uprising, who’d come up from the prison building’s basement in the early moments of the takeover. He likely could have stopped the uprising from happening, but chose to return to the basement. He was only able to identify one prisoner, Dwayne Staats, who, according to his own pro se defense during the last trial, played an important role in planning and maintaining the building takeover. Counselor Patricia May, held by prisoners during the uprising but not assaulted, also only identified Staats (he had identified himself to her during the last trial). Correctional officers Winslow Smith and Josh Wilkinson, who were held in a supply closet during the uprising, testified at length about to their injuries but could not identify anyone. According to their own testimony, they were released within hours from the hospital’s emergency department following the uprising, which does not indicate severe injuries. Extensive photos of their wounds were shown for the benefit of the jury, however.

No mention has been made so far of the violent abuse nearly every inmate in the building was subjected to immediately following the uprising, nor of the punitive confinement conditions, beatings, and harassment that the prisoners targeted by this investigation have been dealing with for the past two years.

The state’s main witness, Royal “Diamond” Downs, testified at length on Friday. Downs exonerated both Abednego Baynes and Kevin Berry, saying that they were “just there, just like anyone” and confirming under cross-examination that he was surprised that they were charged.

Downs is a significant witness because he was the only inmate charged who cooperated with the state (the other defendants were likely targeted in part because they refused on principle to cooperate), and though he claims otherwise, he clearly played a major role in the uprising, had significant power in the prison, and a detailed knowledge of other inmates’ activities. He claims to have seen Miller as part of a group that went into the building from the yard with masks on (allegedly to start the takeover by taking the COs hostage), to have noticed Miller changing his clothes outside the mop closet after the first assaults, and that Miller told him he had “poked” Floyd. Downs had to have his memory of previous statements to investigators “refreshed” by prosecutors at least four times during direct testimony alone, which was what allowed him to “remember” the two current defendants’ involvement. Miller’s lawyer is expected to challenge Downs’ testimony in his cross-examination on Tuesday.

John Bramble’s lawyer, Tom Pederson, came out swinging in his cross-examination of Downs, which lasted almost two and a half hours. Before demonstrating at length that this is not Downs’s first time cooperating with the state and that he will put his needs before anyone, Pederson grilled Downs on his failure to have mentioned in his many previous statements that he’d seen Bramble going into the building with a mask on, or that he’d seen him later during the occupation with a shank. Downs also claims to have talked to Bramble immediately before the takeover and that Bramble said he was “with it.” Though Downs was incredibly stubborn, he admitted that his testimony was inconsistent and could not explain why he had not previously named Bramble along with the group of prisoners going into the building wearing masks.

The prosecution has still not been able to produce any witnesses who say they saw the assaults, and other circumstances — like the low visibility, the flooding that likely spread blood to many of the prisoners’ clothes, and the tendency of many prisoners to regularly carry shanks for self-defense — show how little such circumstantial evidence can contribute to proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On Monday, the investigator tasked with collecting evidence following the uprising even defended his failure to send in masks for analysis by stating repeatedly that wearing a mask did not entail involvement in assaulting officers.

Cross-examination of Royal Downs is expected to resume on Tuesday, January 22, at 9:30am at the New Castle County Courthouse.

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