Trial beginning for 1 of 3 inmates left in Del. prison riot

An AG says the inmate can be found guilty based on "accomplice liability"

Associated Press

WILMINGTON, Del. — Jurors in the trial of one of three remaining inmate defendants in a deadly riot at Delaware's maximum-security prison should use their common sense in deciding guilt or innocence, a prosecutor said Monday.

"You're allowed to make rational inferences from the evidence that you see and the evidence that you hear," deputy attorney general Nichole Warner added as the trial of Roman Shankaras began.

the front entrance of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del. One year after a deadly inmate riot and hostage taking.
the front entrance of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del. One year after a deadly inmate riot and hostage taking. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Shankaras, 32, is one of 18 inmates charged in the February 2017 riot, during which prison guard Steven Floyd was killed. Two other prison guards at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center were released by inmates after being beaten and tormented. A female counselor was held hostage for nearly 20 hours before tactical teams burst through a wall with a backhoe and rescued her. Sixteen of the inmates were charged with murder.

Warner acknowledged that there is no evidence directly connecting Shankaras to Floyd's death. Instead, she explained, he can be found guilty based on "accomplice liability." Under that rule, a person who agrees to commit a crime can be found guilty of other crimes that could reasonably be foreseen to result from that initial course of conduct.

"Anyone who participated in that riot is on the hook for all those charges," she told jurors.

Defense attorney Patrick Collins, meanwhile, reminded jurors that they swore an oath to render a verdict based strictly on the evidence and the law. Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Shankaras is responsible for Floyd's death, and for the kidnappings and attacks on the other prison staffers, he said.

"Probably guilty equals not guilty," Collins told jurors.

Shankaras recently completed a 7-year sentence for unrelated riot and robbery charges but is being detained on $2.8 million cash bail on the prison riot charges.

Last year, Shankaras was among a group of four inmates who were the first to face trial for the riot. At the time, Warner described him as the "mastermind" of the uprising, a label she refrained from using Monday.

Shankaras was dismissed as a defendant in the first trial because his strained relationship with his court-appointed attorney, with whom Shankaras had clashed publicly in court, was affecting the proceedings.

The first two trials against seven inmates resulted in only one — who admitted planning the uprising knowing it could become violent — convicted of murder. Another defendant, Kelly Gibbs, killed himself in November, just days after pleading guilty to rioting, kidnapping, and conspiracy.

In March, prosecutors dismissed cases against six of the remaining inmates, opting to move forward only against Shankaras, Lawrence Michaels, and Alejandro Rodgriguez-Ortiz.

With little physical evidence, and no surveillance camera footage, prosecutors have relied heavily on testimony from other inmates, whose credibility has been successfully attacked by defense attorneys.

As in the previous trials, the prosecution's star witness against Shankaras will be Royal Downs, a former Baltimore gang leader and convicted killer serving a life sentence for murder.

Collins said Downs, who pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors just weeks after he and other inmates were indicted in October 2017, began negotiating with investigators on the same day the riot ended.

"Eventually, he met with these prosecutors and entered into a business partnership with them," Collins said. "Royal Downs is motivated by one thing — that is his total commitment and dedication to Royal Downs."

Warner said prosecutors will introduce prison letters, or "kites," that Shankaras sent to Downs that prove that Shankaras was involved in planning the uprising and unapologetic afterward.

"Warrior, as you know, this had to happen," Shankaras wrote in one letter.

Collins said jurors will hear how and why Shankaras wrote the letters, "and how Royal Downs planned to use those kites for his own benefit, to the extent that he smuggled them out of prison and held them for safekeeping until it was time to strike his business deal with the prosecution."

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