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Maryland appeals court upholds conviction of officer’s teenaged killer

This undated file photo made available by the Baltimore County Police and Fire Department shows Baltimore County Police officer first class Amy Caprio. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction of Dawnta Harris who was convicted in 2019 for running over Caprio as she ordered him to stop. (Baltimore County Police and Fire Department via AP, File)

A Maryland appeals court Wednesday upheld the first-degree felony murder conviction and life sentence of a Baltimore teenager who accelerated a stolen Jeep, running into and killing a police officer who had told him to stop.

The Court of Special Appeals said Dawnta Harris was validly charged with felony murder by motor vehicle and validly sentenced – though a minor — to life in prison with the possibility of parole for slaying Baltimore County officer Amy Caprio on May 21, 2018.

Felony murder can be charged in cases where death was a foreseeable though not necessarily intended result of the commission of a felony, the state’s second-highest court said. Harris was also convicted of burglary, a felony, in connection with Caprio’s slaying, which occurred as the then-16 year old was trying to avoid arrest.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals rejected Harris’ argument through counsel that Maryland law recognizes murder and manslaughter – but not felony murder — in cases involving death by motor vehicle.

The court said Maryland law is not so limited and provides for a felony murder charge in cases where the vehicle-related slaying is committed with “malice,” which includes “in the course of the commission, or attempted commission, of a felony.”

The Court of Special Appeals also held that sentencing minors to life in prison with the possibility of parole for felony murder violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment only when the sentence is “grossly disproportionate” to the criminal offense.

Harris’ “particular conduct was extremely serious,” Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote for the court. “While fleeing the scene of a felony burglary, he drove over and killed a police officer who was standing in front of his vehicle. Under such circumstances, a life sentence was not ‘extreme’ and it did not raise an inference of gross disproportionality.”

Harris’ appellate attorney, Megan E. Coleman, said Wednesday that she is reviewing the decision and will consult with her client on whether to seek review by the Court of Appeals. Coleman is with MarcusBonsib LLC in Greenbelt.

The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the Court of Special Appeals’ decision.

At Harris’ 2019 trial, Baltimore County Circuit Court jurors heard that he and several accomplices had burglarized a Baltimore man’s home on May 18, 2018, and stolen his Jeep Wrangler. The jury also watched Caprio’s body-worn camera footage taken three days later.

According to the Associated Press, Caprio could be heard repeatedly ordering Harris out of the car before the 29-year-old officer drew her gun and screamed “Stop! Stop!”

Harris ducked his head, hit the gas and the Jeep slammed into Caprio. She fired once, the bullet shattering the windshield. Harris ditched the stolen car a few blocks away.

Following his conviction and sentence, Harris sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

Harris’ argument against imposing first-degree felony murder against juveniles has gained some traction nationwide based on the argument that teenagers lack maturity and are especially susceptible to getting involved in felonious mischief and disbelieving that anyone could actually get killed. Legislation to abolish first-degree felony murder in Maryland, Senate Bill 395, died in the General Assembly this year.

The Court of Special Appeals noted its decision was in line with a recent ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court which rejected the argument that there is “national consensus” against sentencing juveniles convicted of felony murder to life with the possibility of parole.

Graeff was joined in the opinion by Judges Christopher B. Kehoe and Terrence M.R. Zic.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Dawnta Harris v. State of Maryland, No. 1515, September Term 2019.