WILMINGTON, Del. – A Delaware inmate accused by prosecutors of being the "mastermind" behind a deadly prison riot last year has been dismissed from a trial at which he and three other inmates were facing murder and kidnapping charges, a judge told jurors Tuesday.
Judge William Carpenter Jr. told jurors that Roman Shankaras will be tried later with another group of inmates because the relationship between Shankaras and his court-appointed attorney, with whom Shankaras had clashed publicly in court, had deteriorated to the point that it was affecting a fair trial for all the defendants.
The move came a day after Carpenter canceled Monday's proceedings and sent jurors home, saying he and attorneys had to deal with legal issues, which he did not explain at the time.
The trial against the remaining three inmates resumed with testimony from Royal Downs, a former Baltimore gang leader who was transferred to Delaware to serve a life sentence for a 1995 murder conviction. Downs, 53, pleaded guilty to a single count of riot and agreed to testify for the prosecution against his fellow inmates.
"I'm up in age," Downs explained when asked by the prosecutor why he agreed to testify against his co-defendants. Downs, who has lost appeals in both state and federal courts in Maryland, also suggested that there was an opportunity to have his conviction overturned and that he didn't want to jeopardize it.
"It would be foolish or idiotic for me to risk going to court for this case," he said, adding that deciding to cooperate with prosecutors was the hardest thing he has ever done.
"I was married to the streets," he said. "To do this, it ain't right, but I'm doing it anyway."
Downs was one of 18 inmates charged after prisoners at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Delaware's maximum-security prison, rioted on Feb. 1 of last year, killing guard Steven Floyd and taking three other staffers hostage. Two other prison guards 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 are charged with murder.
Downs testified Tuesday that, on the day of the riot, he saw several inmates put on masks as they were called in from the recreation yard.
"Right after that, I heard Floyd calling "Code One!" Downs testified, referring to the alert code for an officer being attacked. Downs said he went to his cell and a short time later, his cellmate, Kelly Gibbs, came in with blood on his clothes.
He also testified that he saw Dwayne Staats, one of the three defendants currently on trial, carrying a shank, or homemade knife.
"I didn't see anything physical that he did. ... A lot of people had knives — I guess just for protection — that night," Downs added.
Downs also identified Staats as the person whose voice was captured on audio recordings of negotiations with law enforcement officials.
"Floyd's already down. He about to be canceled," the inmate says at one point.
"That was you, man," Downs said under cross-examination from Staats, who is representing himself.
Staats then played another section of the tape in which a different inmate voice is heard.
"Floyd's already down. You keep playing with these demands we asking, somebody else going to be next. This ain't no game," the inmate said.
Asked by Staats whose voice that was, Downs took a long pause.
"Play that again," he finally requested, drawing laughter from the courtroom gallery, and an admonition by the judge about spectators' behavior.
Downs then said he was not sure whose voice it was, despite telling Staats earlier that the only voices on the recording were "you and me."
Downs also admitted under questioning from Staats that he likely made threatening statements during the negotiations.
"I probably said something crazy," he acknowledged.
At the same time, Downs never testified that he saw Staats or either of the other two inmates on trial, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, attack Floyd or the other prison guards.
Downs did testify that he saw another inmate, Jonatan Rodriguez, attack Floyd on two occasions, including hitting him with a fire extinguisher after trying to strangle him, and that inmate, Lawrence Michaels, told him he had stabbed Floyd several times.