The third trial in Delaware’s prosecution of the Vaughn 17 began on Monday, May 6th, 2019. This time, Roman Shankaras is a solo defendant, fighting the same charges that fifteen of his co-defendants also faced — conspiracy, felony riot, assault, kidnapping, and murder — for allegedly participating in the February 2017 prisoner takeover of C-building at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware (two additional prisoners were also indicted on the same charges except murder). What’s changed is that at this point, the state has been unable to successfully convict five of them, and subsequently dropped their case against another six defendants. Another co-defendant, Kelly Gibbs, died under suspicious circumstances after writing a dying confession to the murder that also named the state’s star rat, Royal “Diamond” Downs. The question is, why does the state continue to pursue a bunk case built on the lies of prison snitches?
In opening statements, we learned that the prosecution is relying on Delaware’s accomplice liability theory in order to convict Roman for the entire uprising. The state doesn’t have any physical evidence related to Roman, aside from two “kites” (prison notes) written from Roman to Royal Downs, who Roman had not known was already collaborating with the police. Although even the state acknowledges that Roman never held a weapon and remained in his cell the whole time, they are trying to hold him responsible for everything that happened during the uprising — including the death of a cop — by alleging that he helped plan the takeover.
So far the prosecution has called in various police investigators and correctional officers to testify against Roman, but the only witness who claimed to identify him was Royal Downs. For anyone who has been following the trials, his lies this time clashed significantly from his previous testimony. Multiple times he identified another defendant, Lawrence Michaels (a.k.a. Smoke), as doing things in the takeover that, during the first trial, he testified to seeing Jarreau Ayers (Ruk) do. The coincidence is not lost that Michaels never had his charges dropped, and his trial is scheduled for October 2019.
Downs also previously claimed to have smuggled the kites out in a visit with his sister, and he is now testifying that he mailed it out in a card. He is no longer claiming for the jury’s benefit that testifying is the hardest thing he’s ever had to do and that given the chance he wouldn’t do it again, after that strategy failed under cross-examination in both the previous trials.
So far media has been silent on the major fallacies and inconsistencies of the case, attempting instead to rile up the public by reporting on new evidence recently found at Vaughn, which is irrelevant to this case.
Meanwhile, for the first time over the course of the three trials in which they’ve testified, both Lieutenant Charles Sennett and Detective David Weaver cried (obviously fake) tears while on the stand in order to influence the jury. The state is desperate, and this time they are resorting to tactics of red herring evidence and emotional play in addition to outright lies.
The state argues that the two kites show that Roman helped orchestrate the prison takeover and that therefore he is legally responsible for everything else that happened during it. So far, Diamond has testified that other Vaughn 17 defendants who’ve said they helped plan the takeover — Dwayne Staats and Jarreau Ayers — were in Roman’s cell during the uprising and consulted with Roman, Lawrence Michaels, and several others to make key decisions. On Wednesday, Diamond characterized Roman as the uprising’s “puppet master,” but the details of Diamond’s testimony indicate that major decisions about hostage negotiations were made spontaneously over the radio by Diamond and Staats in a different room, not in Roman’s cell.
Moreover, the state’s interpretation of the letters themselves is in question. In his opening statement, Roman’s lawyer — Patrick Collins — noted that, as we’ve heard in previous trials, what was planned for February 1, 2017, depends on who you talk to. Some inmates planned to stay in the yard as a nonviolent protest, while Diamond says he’d learned there would be a takeover but that he never heard that violence would be involved. Another plan was a coordinated violent takeover. But it’s still uncertain which prisoners intended to participate in which plan.
This means that the state would first have to prove that Roman’s letters unequivocally show that he helped plan a takeover of C-Building, as opposed to a nonviolent protest, and then also prove that Roman intended the takeover to be violent. In the language of Delaware’s accomplice liability law, they would have to show that Roman planned to commit an “unlawful act” with others in which the assaults, murder and kidnapping was “reasonably foreseeable” as a possible outcome, even if he never personally held a weapon. It is unclear how the state would decisively prove this based on Roman’s letters and the snitch testimony they’ve presented so far — which is supposed to be the strongest part of their case. As Collins pointed out, under the standard of reasonable doubt, even the jury thinking Roman is “probably guilty” is not enough to return a guilty verdict.
The state’s entire case against the Vaughn 17 has been based on snitch testimony, and it’s important to note that the two kites that the state is presenting as hard physical evidence in this case were written in communication with a snitch. In cross-examination, the defense has already established Diamond’s extensive influence in the prison as someone with time, and these letters seem to be a sting set-up.
So far, the state has failed to secure any convictions in its entire case against the Vaughn 17 except for what the defendants personally attested to having done. In the fall, Dwayne Staats was found guilty on all charges but intentional murder after he explained to the court that he had helped plan the uprising, knowing it could turn violent. Jarreau Ayers, also serving a life sentence, was found guilty of conspiracy, riot, kidnapping and assault based on his own testimony that he helped facilitate the takeover once it began. Deric Forney (called Twin) maintained his innocence and was found not guilty.
Following the second trial, in which all four defendants maintained their innocence, the jury found Abednego Baynes and Kevin Berry not guilty on all charges and came to no decision on a few final charges for John Bramble and Obadiah Miller, effectively acquitting them as well. The state has since quietly dropped those final charges for good.
After the second trial, the state also dropped most of the remaining defendants’ cases. Lawrence Michaels and Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz are still facing trial in October of this year.
Having completed his sentence soon after the uprising, Roman should have already been released from prison. Instead he is still being held on $2.8 million cash bail pending the outcome of this trial.
The seven Vaughn defendants who have already stood trial, along with an additional four whose charges were dropped, have since been moved to different prisons in Pennsylvania. After more than two years of state retaliation and abuse, they are all still being held in solitary and denied privileges, despite almost all having been exonerated by Delaware’s so-called justice system.
Roman’s trial will resume on Monday, May 13, at 9:45am in Room 8B of New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington and will be in session every day for the rest of this coming week except Wednesday, May 15th. Court support is welcome and encouraged!
For more information on the Vaughn 17.