Jurors were scheduled to start deliberating the fate of Roman Shankaras on Wednesday morning after hearing closing arguments from attorneys and receiving final instructions from the judge Tuesday afternoon.
Depending on the jury's verdict, Shankaras, 32, could soon walk out of prison, having recently completed a 7-year sentence for unrelated riot 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 guard Steven Floyd during a February 2017 uprising in which two other guards were assaulted. 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 riot, can be found guilty of other crimes that could reasonably be foreseen as arising from that initial course of conduct.
"Was it reasonably foreseeable that people could be injured?" prosecutor John Downs asked jurors. Defense attorney Patrick Collins argued that the prosecution of Shankaras is based on false testimony from other inmates acting in their own self-interests, including former Baltimore gang member and convicted murderer Royal Downs, the state's star witness.
Downs, who is serving a life sentence, has claimed repeatedly that he advocated for a peaceful protest as a way inmates could air grievances about their treatment, perhaps by staying in their cells and refusing to come out. Once the riot broke out, however, Downs became a key player, taking a walkie-talkie from another inmate and participating in hostage negotiations with law enforcement officials. Unlike Shankaras, Downs was never charged with Floyd's murder under the accomplice liability 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 other inmates.
"Your common sense should tell you that Royal Downs is not being truthful with you, and he was in 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 riot. He is one of 18 inmates indicted after the riot, 16 of whom were charged with murder in Floyd's death. Two other guards were released by inmates after being beaten and tormented. A female counselor was held hostage for nearly 20 hours before tactical teams burst in and rescued her.
The first two trials against seven inmates resulted in just one being convicted of murder. The verdict against Dwayne Staats, who was already serving life for murder, came after he openly admitted planning the riot, knowing it could become violent. Another inmate, Kelly Gibbs, killed himself in November, just days after pleading guilty to rioting, kidnapping, and conspiracy.
In March, prosecutors dismissed cases against six of the remaining inmates, opting to move forward only against Shankaras and two others. With little physical evidence, and no surveillance camera footage, prosecutors have relied heavily on testimony from Downs and other inmates, whose credibility has been successfully attacked by defense attorneys.
In their case against Shankaras, however, prosecutors also are pinning their hopes on two prison letters that Shankaras wrote to Downs two months after the riot. Shankaras testified that he wrote the letters after being told to do so by Downs, who indicated he was going to shoulder the blame for the riot and needed information to bolster his credibility. Unbeknownst to Shankaras, Downs had signaled his willingness to cooperate with authorities even before the riot was over, having been among several inmates allowed to leave the building during the siege.
In the first letter, Shankaras described details of the riot, some of which turned out to be inaccurate because, according to the defense, they were based on what Shankaras heard from other inmates. The second, more damning letter, reads like a manifesto and notes that "persistence procreated the resistance."
"Some had to be convinced, some had to be tricked, and others had to be forced," Shankaras wrote. Collins argued that Downs drafted the manifesto and duped Shankaras, out of fear, into copying it in his own handwriting, so that Downs could use it as "insurance" in his cooperation and plea negotiations with prosecutors.