Inmate charged in fatal riot denies committing violence
WILMINGTON, Del. – A Delaware inmate charged in a deadly prison riot testified Tuesday that he did not assault or kill anyone, and that he was expecting inmates to stage a peaceful protest about prison conditions.
Jarreau Ayers, who is acting as his own attorney, took the stand to give his account of what happened during the February 2017 riot at Delaware's maximum-security prison, where a guard was killed and three other staffers taken hostage.
Ayers, 37, denied killing, assaulting or kidnapping anyone but said he accepted responsibility for his actions during the disturbance and would not try to point the finger at other inmates.
"I refuse to do it. I'm not going to do it for a not-guilty verdict. I'm not going to do it for anything," he told jurors.
Ayers, who is serving life in prison for murder, is one of three inmates being tried on murder, assault and kidnapping charges. They are among 17 inmates charged in the riot, 16 of whom are charged with murder in the death of Sgt. Steven Floyd. The others face trials over the next several months.
"Sergeant Floyd shouldn't have died. I agree with that," Ayers said. "Bad things happen when you have good intentions."
Ayers told jurors that he knew something was going to happen at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna but didn't know exactly what. He said he was in the recreation yard when inmates inside a building staged the takeover, recalling that he felt frustrated when he realized what was happening because he expected inmates to stand together in the yard in a show of solidarity.
"They chose for me not to be part of that situation. That was a decision they made that I still take issue with at times," he said.
In the weeks and months leading up to the riot, inmates had staged peaceful protests over issues such as phone and shower time, said Ayers, who acknowledged talking to another inmate, convicted murderer Royal Downs, about a similar protest. Refusing to come in from the recreation yard or staying on the prison tier and refusing to lock into their cells were two options to get the attention of prison administrators, he suggested.
A review ordered by Democratic Gov. John Carney after the riot found that Department of Correction officials' dismissal of warnings about trouble brewing 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.
Since the riot, state officials have devoted millions of dollars to security upgrades, staff training, improved programming for inmates and salary increases for correctional officers. Last week, they said hundreds of inmates would be transferred to Pennsylvania in an effort to reduce mandatory overtime in the severely understaffed guard ranks at Vaughn.
Co-defendant Dwayne Staats, a convicted killer who is also serving life and representing himself, told jurors that he planned the uprising with the realization that it could be violent and recruited six other inmates to carry it out.
"My goal was to do something to expose this place to where the public and the government would take notice. I say I got their attention," said Staats, 37. "A lot of stuff wasn't being addressed until that happened."
"When you get into a 'by any means' mode, sometimes you do what is necessary," Staats later explained under cross-examination.
At the same time, he denied assaulting anyone and said Floyd's death was not part of the plan.
"The people that participated in the uprising, the takeover — the murder was something isolated from that. Somebody splintered off the takeover and turned it into a murder," he said.
In addition to Floyd being killed, two other correctional officers were beaten and tormented by inmates before being released. Hours later, response teams used a backhoe to breach a wall and rescue a female counselor who was still being held hostage. She was not injured.
The third defendant, Deric Forney, 29, denied any role in the uprising and said he did not find out until being questioned by an FBI agent afterward that Floyd had died. He recalled how he prayed when he realized response teams were breaching the building and got on the floor of his cell as a flash-bang grenade exploded near him.
"I didn't know if I was going to get out alive," Forney said, breaking down in tears.
Forney, like many other inmates, said he was beaten by officers who stormed the building.
"They came in, came in rough," he testified.
A class-action lawsuit filed two weeks ago on behalf of scores of inmates at the prison alleges that they were subjected to inhumane conditions and physical and verbal abuse both before and after the riot.
Closing arguments in the criminal trial are scheduled for Thursday.