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Maryland high court will hear appeal by Baltimore County officer’s convicted teen killer

Surrounded by family and friends, Debra Sorrells, the mother of Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio, gazes skyward following the life sentence for her daughter’s death, meted out for 17-year-old Dawnta Harris at Baltimore County Circuit Court Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Towson, Md. Harris was tried as an adult earlier this year and convicted of felony murder in the slaying of Officer Caprio. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Maryland’s top court this week agreed to hear the appeal of a teenager convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison for having accelerated a stolen sports utility vehicle and running into and killing a Baltimore County police officer who had told him to stop.

In his successful request for Court of Appeals review, Dawnta Harris argues through counsel that his conviction for killing officer Amy Caprio on May 21, 2018, must be overturned because felony murder by vehicle is not a recognized crime in Maryland, having been preempted by the state’s statutory prohibition on manslaughter by vehicle.

“Until the legislature decides to amend the manslaughter by vehicle statute to exclude certain unintended homicides from preemption, petitioner (Harris) is entitled to the benefit of the court’s prior interpretations of the statute: The manslaughter by vehicle statute preempts all unintended homicides committed by motor vehicle,” attorney Megan E. Coleman wrote to the high court.

Coleman added that Harris’s sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for felony murder, which by definition is an unintended killing, violates the Maryland Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment for minors.

“The sentencing court may have known petitioner’s age, but the court did not consider his immaturity, impetuosity, and the failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” wrote Coleman, of MarcusBonsib LLC in Greenbelt.

“Neither the pre-sentence investigation, defense counsel, nor the sentencing court, made any reference to the distinct differences between juveniles and adults,” Coleman added. “When sentencing juveniles, juveniles cannot simply be viewed as miniature adults.”

FILE – This undated file photo made available by the Baltimore County Police and Fire Department shows Baltimore County Police officer first class Amy Caprio. (Baltimore County Police and Fire Department via AP, File)

Coleman’s arguments were rejected in July by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals.

The court ruled that Maryland law provides for felony murder charges 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 upheld the constitutionality of Harris’ sentence, saying it was not “grossly disproportionate” despite his age of 16 due to the brutality of the killing.

The Maryland attorney general’s office had urged the high court not to hear Harris’ appeal, saying the Court of Special Appeals decision was correct and in no need for review.

The Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the case early next year and is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31. The case is docketed at the high court as Dawnta Harris v. State of Maryland, No.  45, September Term 2021.

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.

In upholding Harris’ conviction, the Court of Special Appeals said felony murder by motor vehicle can be charged in cases where death was a foreseeable though not necessarily intended result of the commission of a felony. Harris was also convicted of burglary, a felony, in connection with Caprio’s slaying, which occurred as the teenager was trying to avoid arrest.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals also affirmed Harris’ life sentence with the possibility of parole, calling his conduct “extremely serious.”

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

The 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 said 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.