APNewsBreak: Prison riot defendant pleaded guilty months ago

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A Delaware inmate who is a key prosecution witness in a deadly prison riot entered a guilty plea almost a year ago to charges stemming from the uprising, but the plea was not noted in court records until this week.

Fifty-three-year-old Royal Downs, serving a life sentence for murder, entered the plea Dec. 4, less than a month after he entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment, and just weeks after he and other inmates were indicted. He’s one of 18 inmates charged in the riot.

The secrecy surrounding Downs’ guilty plea follows a pattern by prosecutors and court staff of keeping details about case under wraps.

A transcript of the plea hearing was docketed Tuesday, but the docket entry was quickly sealed Thursday after The Associated Press began asking questions about it.

Downs’ attorney, Jonathan Layton, declined to comment Friday.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office referred questions to court officials.

Linda Carmichael, chief staff attorney for Delaware’s Superior Court, said in an email Friday that the docket entry had been “corrected” to reflect that the documents were filed under seal by order of Judge William Carpenter Jr. She refused to answer other questions.

Downs, who has been labeled by other defendants as a “rat” and “snitch,” is one of only two defendants not charged with murder for the death of prison guard Steven Floyd.

Sixteen defendants were charged with murder, kidnapping, assault and other crimes following the Feb. 1 uprising, during which Floyd was killed and three other prison staffers taken hostage. Downs and another inmate were charged with kidnapping, riot and conspiracy. Several of the defendants are already serving time for murder, including four serving life sentences.

Downs has given four separate statements to investigators and prosecutors, the first on Feb. 2, 2017, the day the uprising ended. He gave a second statement 10 days later, followed by another interview on Sept. 19, less than a month before the defendants were indicted. Downs was interviewed a final time on Feb. 12, after pleading guilty, but a recording of the interview was not given to defense attorneys until June 6.

Downs is being held at an undisclosed location separate from the other defendants. Jury selection for the first four inmates to be tried begins Monday.

Although Downs pleaded guilty, the court docket continues to list him as a defendant, and Layton continues to receive correspondence directed at defense attorneys preparing for trial. Typically, a guilty plea represents a disposition of criminal charges, and the defendant is no longer considered part of a case. Court staff have not entered any disposition of Downs’ case on the docket, which still indicates he faces trial. Prosecutors have included him in the last of five groups of defendants to be tried.

Stephanie Volturo of the state Office of Conflicts Counsel, which oversees the court-appointed attorneys representing the inmate defendants, said Friday that she was unaware of any plea being entered in the case until she received a query from the AP. Volturo noted, however, that her office is not typically notified of every development in a case.

Defense attorneys complain that prosecutors have ignored their efforts to get materials they need to defend their clients.

Patrick Collins, who is serving as coordinating counsel for defense attorneys, expressed frustration earlier this year at the state’s approach, including its failure to provide a copy of Floyd’s autopsy report more than a year after his death.

Just weeks ago, Collins was forced to suddenly withdraw as attorney for defendant Jarreau Ayers after prosecutors notified him that one of their witnesses, convicted murderer Wade Smith, was once represented by Collins. Prosecutors had Smith’s name for several months but withheld it from Collins until late August, barely a month before the start of Ayers’ trial.

Meanwhile, Carpenter began routinely sealing court filings after The Associated Press in July requested transcripts of three office conferences he had held with attorneys. In the following weeks, docket entries were routinely sealed by the judge.

But in the days leading up to Monday’s scheduled start of jury selection, Carpenter has ordered the unsealing of several court filings, some of which indicate that prosecutors have remained slow in providing materials to defense attorneys.

“Candidly the court would not expect that discovery issues remain ... or that correspondence from any defense counsel in this matter would be ignored by the state,” Carpenter wrote in a Sept. 5 letter to prosecutors. “The court is giving a great deal of time and resources to trying these cases and it expects the Attorney General’s Office to do the same.”