WILMINGTON, Del. – An inmate accused of leading a riot at Delaware's maximum-security prison during which a guard was killed and other staffers taken hostage was acquitted of all charges Thursday and will soon be freed.
A jury deliberated about nine hours over two days before declaring Roman Shankaras, 32, not guilty of murder, assault, kidnapping, riot and conspiracy.
Shankaras recently completed a seven-year sentence for unrelated riot and robbery charges but has remained in pretrial custody on $2.8 million cash bail.
"His time as a pretrial detainee will be over within the next 24 hours, I would imagine," said Shankaras' attorney, Patrick Collins.
Shankaras blinked his eyes but showed little emotion as the verdicts were read. As he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom, he flashed a broad smile at his supporters.
"I knew he was coming home. He's not a murderer," said Lillian Oliver, 32, who identified herself as Shankaras' wife.
Shankaras is one of 18 inmates indicted after the February 2017 riot, 16 of whom were charged with murder in guard Steven Floyd's death. Two other guards were released by inmates after being beaten and tormented. A female counselor was held hostage for nearly 20 hours before tactical teams burst in and rescued her.
Two previous trials against seven other inmates resulted in only one murder conviction. The verdict against Dwayne Staats, already serving life for murder, came after he boasted of planning the riot, knowing it could become violent. Another inmate, Kelly Gibbs, killed himself in November, days after pleading guilty to rioting, kidnapping, and conspiracy.
One of Staats' co-defendants in the first trial, Jarreau Ayers, was acquitted of murder but convicted along with Staats of assault, kidnapping, conspiracy and riot. The jury acquitted a third co-defendant, Deric Forney. The second trial ended in February with no convictions for any of the four defendants. Prosecutors subsequently dismissed cases against six of the remaining inmates, opting to move forward only against Shankaras and two others.
Lead prosecutor John Downs refused to comment on the prosecution's latest loss as he left court Thursday. A spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Jennings declined to comment when asked whether the state would drop charges against the remaining defendants.
"They have to do what they think is best, and I'm sure they'll have a meeting and they'll talk about it," Collins said.
As of April 30, before Shankaras' trial, defense costs in the case had cost Delaware taxpayers about $1.3 million.
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.
Prosecutors acknowledged there was no evidence that Shankaras participated in killing Floyd or assaulting the other guards. They argued, however, that he could be convicted under the "accomplice liability" doctrine. Under that rule, a person who agrees to commit a crime, such as a riot, can be found guilty of other crimes that could reasonably be foreseen as arising from that initial course of conduct.
The prosecution's star witness in all the trials has been former Baltimore gang leader Royal Downs. Downs, serving a life sentence for murder, has claimed repeatedly that he advocated for a peaceful protest by inmates to air grievances about their treatment, perhaps by staying in their cells and refusing to come out. Once the riot broke out, however, Downs became a key player, taking a walkie-talkie from another inmate and participating in hostage negotiations with law enforcement officials.
Despite his role in the riot, Downs was among several inmates allowed to leave the building during the siege. He signaled his willingness to cooperate with authorities even before the riot was over and subsequently pleaded guilty to a single count of riot, which carries no mandatory prison time.
"There were significant credibility issues and motivation issues with Royal Downs," Collins said.
Downs described Shankaras as the "puppet master" of the uprising, even though Shankaras reportedly stayed in his cell most of the time.
Collins argued that Downs, Staats and Ayers were the true leaders of the revolt. He described Downs as an authority figure among fellow inmates with a history of getting others to do his bidding, including duping Shankaras into writing two letters to him two months after the riot.
Shankaras testified that he wrote the letters after being told to do so by Downs, who indicated he was going to shoulder the blame for the riot and needed information to bolster his credibility. Unbeknownst to Shankaras, Downs was cooperating with investigators.
In the first letter, Shankaras described details of the riot, some of which turned out to be inaccurate because, according to Collins, they were based not on what Shankaras saw or did, but what he heard from other inmates. The second, more damning letter, reads like a manifesto and notes that "persistence procreated the resistance."
"Some had to be convinced, some had to be tricked, and others had to be forced," Shankaras wrote.
Collins argued that Downs drafted the manifesto and duped Shankaras into copying it in his own handwriting so that Downs could use it as "insurance" in his cooperation and plea negotiations with prosecutors.