Conviction upheld for teen who ran over Baltimore County police officer

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The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld a murder conviction and life sentence for the teenager who fatally struck Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio with a vehicle in 2018, despite arguments from his lawyers that the court did not properly take into account his age.

Dawnta Harris, now 20, was driving a stolen Jeep at Perry Hall when Caprio blocked her path with his patrol car, jumped out and ordered her to stop. He first did so by opening his car door, then ducked down and sped away, police said. Caprio fired his gun once before hitting her.

Harris and three other Baltimore teenagers were in the area robbing homes, leading the prosecution to seek a felony murder charge — a doctrine that may apply when someone is killed during of a different crime.

A jury found Harris guilty of the offense after an eight-day trial in 2019, and he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

His appeal lawyers asked for the conviction and sentence to be reviewed, arguing that the crime of murder should not apply and that it was unconstitutional to sentence a minor to life. Harris was 16 at the time of Caprio’s murder.

But the Court of Appeal rejected those arguments in a decision handed down last Wednesday.

The state’s highest court found that felony murder was not preempted by the state’s driving manslaughter law; a US Supreme Court case cited by lawyers did not seek life sentences with the possibility of parole; and that Harris’ age was considered in sentencing.

Garry Sorrells, Caprio’s father, said on Friday it was “reassuring” that the court upheld the conviction and dismissed the appeal. But he said it didn’t offer much closure: “It was a traumatic loss and it continues to be.”

Caprio was the first Baltimore County police officer to be killed in the line of duty since 2013.

Harris’ attorney for the appeal, Megan Coleman, called the decision disappointing, but said she hoped the arguments would “illuminate evolving areas of law that could be further addressed by the General Assembly to achieve fairer sentencing procedures for juvenile offenders”.

“Specifically, the appeal provided a framework for the General Assembly to articulate specific sentencing factors with respect to young persons and accompanying circumstances before imposing a life sentence on a juvenile offender,” Coleman said.

Coleman argued before the Court of Appeal in March that Harris’ age meant he was unable “to appreciate the risks and consequences” of his actions.

She said criminal murder should not apply to children because their brains are not fully developed and should have had unique considerations in sentencing due to their age.

Defense attorneys at Harris’s sentencing had asked that he be sentenced to 30 years, and Harris himself asked the judge for a second chance at life.

But the Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion that the Circuit Court took into account Harris’ age. He pointed to a 25-page pre-sentence inquest report that included his age, criminal and personal history, family status, education and mental health. His lawyers also made mitigating arguments during the hearing in part about his youth.

And the Maryland Court of Appeals said the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabamawhich declared that mandatory life sentences without parole were unconstitutional for children convicted of homicide, did not apply in this case because Harris will be eligible for parole after 15 years.

Scott Shellenberger, the Baltimore County state’s attorney, said Friday he was pleased the court upheld Harris’s conviction and sentence.

“It’s been a very long and arduous journey for Amy Caprio’s family, the Sorrells,” he said. “We hope it brings them some closure.”

Harris has no other appeal options from the state, but could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or seek through other legal proceedings to have his sentence reconsidered. As the Court of Appeals noted, Harris will automatically be eligible for a reduced sentence after serving 20 years under a 2021 law passed by the General Assembly.

He will also be eligible for parole after 15 years, although Shellenberger has previously said those convicted of murder typically spend at least 30 years in prison.

Coleman had argued that judges should have additional discretion, not mandatory sentencing guidelines, in handing down sentences for children.

The General Assembly considered banning children from being charged with murder, but these legislative attempts were unsuccessful. The Juvenile Restoration Act, passed in 2021, banned life sentences without parole for children.

Caprio’s murder sparked a firestorm, including racist backlash, as all four teenagers are black and Caprio was white. It also played into the city-county dynamic – Harris was from Gilmor Homes public housing in West Baltimore and had gone for a ride with friends in the stolen car to suburban Perry Hall.

His defense attorney, Warren Brown, had urged the judge to consider his surroundings and argued that portraying him as someone “unsalvageable” was a mistake.

County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a statement that “justice has prevailed” in the “heinous killing” of Caprio.

“Please continue to keep his family, friends and colleagues in your thoughts and prayers,” she said.

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