WILMINGTON, Del. Jury deliberation is set to begin in the trial of an inmate accused of leading a riot on Delaware’s maximum security prison, during which a guard was killed and the other staff members taken hostage.
Jurors were scheduled to begin deliberations on the fate of the Roman Shankaras on Wednesday morning after hearing of the closing arguments of the lawyers and the receipt of final instructions from the judge Tuesday afternoon.
Depending on the jury’s verdict, Shankaras, 32, could soon walk out of prison, and has recently completed a 7-year sentence for unrelated riots and robbery charges, or he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Prosecutors acknowledged that there is no evidence that Shankaras participated in the killing of the guard Steven Floyd during a February 2017 uprising in which two other guards were attacked. They argued, however, that he can be convicted under the “accomplice liability” doctrine. Under that rule, a person who agrees to commit a crime, such as rebellion, may be found guilty of other crimes, that could reasonably be foreseen as a result of the initial course of the behavior.
“It Was reasonably to be expected that people get hurt?” prosecutor John Downs asked jurors.
Attorney Patrick Collins stated that the prosecution of Shankaras is based on false statements of the other prisoners who, in their own interests, including the former Baltimore gang member and convicted killer Royal Downs, the state’s star witness.
Downs, who is serving a life sentence, has claimed repeatedly that he pleaded for a peaceful protest as a way the prisoners could air grievances about their treatment, perhaps by staying in their cells and refused to come out. As soon as the rebellion broke out, however, Downs was a major player, taking a walkie-talkie from a other inmate, and the participation in the hostage-taking of the negotiations with the officials of the law enforcement. In contrast to Shankaras, Downs was never charged with Floyd’s murder under the liability of the accomplice doctrine. He, instead, was allowed to plead guilty to a single count of riot, which carries no mandatory prison time, in exchange for testifying against the other prisoners.
“Your common sense should tell you that Royal Downs is not fair with you, and he was on this from the jump-off,” Collins told jurors.
Shankaras, described by Royal Downs as the ‘puppet master’ of the uprising, is charged with murder, assault, kidnapping, conspiracy and rebellion. He is one of 18 inmates sued after the riot, of whom 16 have been charged with the murder in Floyd’s death. Two other guards were released by the prisoners after being beaten and tortured. A female counselor was held hostage for nearly 20 hours before the tactical teams burst in and saved her.
The first two lawsuits against seven of the prisoners resulted in only one being convicted of murder. The judgment against Dwayne Staats, who was already serving life for murder, came after he openly admitted the planning of the riots, to know it can also be violent. Another prisoner, Kelly Gibbs, was killed in November, a few days after pleading guilty to the riot, kidnapping, and conspiracy.
In March, prosecutors dismissed cases against six of the remaining prisoners, choosing to go forward only against Shankaras and two others.
With little physical evidence and no surveillance camera footage, prosecutors have relied heavily on the testimony of the Downs and the other inmates, whose credibility was successfully attacked by the defense lawyers.
In their case against Shankaras, however, prosecutors also are pinning their hopes on two prison letters that Shankaras wrote Downs two months after the riots. Shankaras testified that he wrote the letters after being told to do so by the Downs, that he was going to shoulder the blame for the riots and the necessary information to strengthen their credibility. Unbeknownst to Shankaras, Downs had signalled his willingness to cooperate with the authorities, even before the uprising was over, that some of the detainees allowed to leave the building during the siege.
In the first letter, Shankaras described details of the riots, some of which turned out to be incorrect, because according to the defence, they were based on what Shankaras heard of other prisoners. The second, more scathing letter, reads like a manifesto and notes that “persistence procreated the resistance.”
“Some had to be convinced, some had to be tricked, and the others had to be forced,” Shankaras wrote.
Collins argued that the Downs are drawn up of the manifest and the injured Shankaras, out of fear, in the copy in his own handwriting, so that Downs could use it as “insurance” in his cooperation and plea negotiations with the prosecutors.