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Confession Throws Prison Uprising Trials Into Chaos

A judge excluded a confession that exonerated defendants in one trial related to a Delaware prison uprising, but a pair of defendants were nonetheless acquitted, promising further problems for prosecutors.

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Image via Delaware Correction Center

Early in the morning of Nov. 22, 2018, Kelly Gibbs hanged himself in his single-person cell at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington, Delaware. Presumably just before his final moments, Gibbs, 30, wrote a confession to the killing of corrections officer Lt. Steven Floyd. In February 2017, Floyd died during a 19-hour uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Smyrna, Delaware, in which incarcerated people took four hostages and control of Building C. Gibbs was one of 18 people charged with multiple felonies related to the uprising at the 2,600-capacity facility.

On Oct. 23, 2018, three men went to trial on charges including rioting, kidnapping, conspiracy, assault, and first-degree murder. Jarreau Ayers was convicted on all of the charges against him except murder. Dwayne Staats was convicted on all charges, and Deric Forney was acquitted entirely. Then on Jan. 14, four more defendants went to trial facing the same charges. On Feb. 18, two of the defendants were acquitted, and the jury failed to reach unanimous verdicts for charges against the other two defendants.

Gibbs made his confession in a suicide letter. He wrote that he knew “for a fact” that 13 prisoners charged in the case were not involved in the uprising or in Lt. Floyd’s murder. He also wrote a separate suicide letter to his family. But on Feb. 4, midway through the second trial, Delaware Superior Court Judge William C. Carpenter ruled that the letter containing the confession was inadmissible. Judge Carpenter said the letter is “unreliable,” and “inconsistent” with Gibbs’s past communications. The letters are under seal, but copies of the confession-centered letter were leaked to the News Journal and to The Appeal.

“Third world country” conditions spur uprising

The 2017 Vaughn uprising was allegedly coordinated by a group of prisoners as a means to negotiate for demands like rehabilitation programs, education, and an end to abusive treatment by guards after failed attempts to improve their conditions by other means, including civil disobedience and prisoners’ rights litigation.

For years, Delaware prisons have been criticized for “third-world country” conditions by advocates and attorneys alike including the ACLU, Delaware Community Legal Aid Society, and local public defenders. In 2005, Anthony Pierce had a cancerous brain tumor that grew to the size of a second head before he received any medical treatment. He died days after his release from prison.

Prison uprisings with deadly consequences and troubled trials are commonplace. Forty-five years ago, a group with similar complaints about conditions of confinement seized what is now Building C at Vaughn. “The same conditions down there [now] existed in the ’70s”, Greg Watson, a defendant in the 1974 uprising case who was recently released from Vaughn because he has bone cancer, told the News Journal. During their trial, the “Smyrna 5,” who were ultimately convicted of assault with an attempt to murder, assault on a prison guard, and conspiracy, walked out of the courtroom several times in opposition to the legal system that they perceived to be unfair.

In December 1999, six incarcerated people at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, seized the prison’s Camp D partly as a protest against poor conditions of confinement. They held several guards, including Capt. David Knapps, hostage. Knapps was killed in Camp D’s bathroom, and one of the men involved in the uprising was shot to death by guards when they stormed the camp to quell the uprising. Angola prisoners claimed that they were brutally beaten by guards when the administration took control of Camp D. Five of the men involved in the uprising were charged in death penalty cases, two of which continue nearly 20 years later. The “Angola 5” cases have cost Louisiana millions in court and prosecution costs and have been marred by prosecutorial misconduct, including the state’s withholding of a confession made by one man that attorneys said exonerated some of his co-defendants.

A dying declaration

Kelly Gibbs pleaded guilty to riot, kidnapping, and conspiracy just days after the first trial’s verdict on Nov. 20. Days later, he wrote the two suicide letters. “I regret waiting this late to confess because my actions have resulted in the unjustly indictment of 13 of my codefendants,” he wrote in the Nov. 21 suicide letter.  “I no longer live with the guilt and 13 others shouldn’t suffer behind my selfishness.” (Gibbs wrote that all four defendants in the second trial group had no involvement in the uprising.)

Gibbs said he stabbed Lt. Floyd with a shank and hit him with a mop-wringer to subdue him. Later, Gibbs wrote, Royal Downs, a prisoner who he described as the “mastermind” of the uprising, said they had to “make an example out of one of ’em [the guards].” Gibbs and two other prisoners that he did not name continued to stab and hit Lt. Floyd until he succumbed to his injuries, according to the letter.

“I’m sorry for my actions,” Gibbs wrote.

“There are places in any court case where unfettered discretion is afforded to judges,” Bret Grote, director of the Abolitionist Law Center and an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said of the judge’s decision to exclude the Gibbs letters.

“Their decisions are almost unreviewable, since the standard for review and reversal of a verdict is so high.”

Excessive force allegations

Judge Carpenter’s decision regarding the Gibbs letters is not the only legal controversy surrounding the Vaughn uprising case. On  Jan. 17, nine Vaughn defendants filed a federal lawsuit against  Commissioner Perry Phelps of the Delaware Department of Correction, former Vaughn warden David Pierce, and several other prison officials alleging excessive force by guards and denial of medical care during the uprising and its aftermath. Jarreau Ayers, who has been incarcerated on and off since he was 13, claims that he was stomped in the face and back by an officer, while another officer walked across his legs as he was lying in a pool of his own blood on a cement floor outside the prison. When the uprising began, Ayers was awaiting knee surgery for a torn ACL. But after the uprising, prison medical personnel allegedly told him that his surgery was denied due to “security reasons.” Plaintiffs also allege an officer shoved an object in an individual’s rectum and forced pepper spray down another’s throat while an officer choked him.

Just one month before Ayers was to be tried in the first uprising trial, prosecutors disclosed that they planned to call a witness who was once a client of his attorney. Ayers’s attorney was removed from the case because of the conflict, and he represented himself at the October trial.

The third Vaughn uprising trial is scheduled to begin on March 11, followed by another trial on May 5. All of the men are facing the same charges as previous Vaughn uprising defendants, except Royal Downs and Pedro Chairez, who are not charged with murder or assault. Downs accepted a plea deal to cooperate with the state.

Because the second trial resulted in acquittals, prosecutors may decide to drop some or all remaining charges. Defense attorneys are also likely to argue in the third trial that Gibbs’s letter should be admissible.  “Trials can be won and lost by rulings,” Ayers said. “We have to force a public mirror to the face of the courts and demand transparency and impartiality.”