The Baltimore Sun
A Baltimore County judge handed down the stiffest possible penalty Wednesday and sentenced Dawnta Harris to life in prison at age 17 for the murder of Officer Amy Caprio.
The West Baltimore teen, with his head bowed, began to cry.
His defense attorneys had urged the judge to give Harris 30 years for murdering Caprio in May 2018. He ran over the police officer in a stolen Jeep Wrangler while his friends were burglarizing homes in Perry Hall.
Harris himself asked Circuit Judge Jan Marshall Alexander for a second chance in life. A defense attorney read aloud his six-page letter to the judge.
“I didn’t want to harm Officer Caprio at all; I just wanted to get away,” Harris wrote. “From the bottom of my heart, I thought she was going to move.”
“Show me mercy,” he pleaded.
For nearly two hours, attorneys argued over the teen’s fate. Caprio’s widowed husband told the judge of his searing grief.
“I wake up and wonder what the hell is the point of getting out of bed?” said Tim Caprio, his voice cracking. “There is a massive hole and emptiness in my heart.”
Outside the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse in Towson, State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he was satisfied.
“Nobody here is happy today,” Shellenberger said. “All of us would rather have Amy here with us. But we do feel like justice was served.”
The morning hearing brought an emotional end to the murder case against Harris. The teen was convicted in May of killing Caprio. Her tragic death drew attention from around the country; condolences poured in, some from the White House. Meanwhile, the murder case against Harris stoked debate.
An eight-day trial revealed that the ninth-grader from Gilmor Homes and his friends drove to Perry Hall in the stolen Jeep and began to burglarize homes.
The others were inside or behind the homes when Caprio approached the Jeep. Harris stepped on the gas and ran over the 29-year-old officer. The murder of a white police woman by a black teenager set off a firestorm of debate, much of it racially charged.
Prominent Baltimore attorney Warren Brown took up the teen’s defense for free. During the trial, Brown said he felt compelled to help Harris after reading online a call to “string him up by his testicles.” On Wednesday, Brown wasn’t surprised by the sentence.
“It wasn’t unexpected,” he said, outside the courthouse. “The judge was under a lot of pressure.”
Brown said they will file an appeal, which is routine when life sentences are given, especially when the defendant is so young.
During the morning’s hearing, Deputy State’s Attorney Robin Coffin offered Harris’ juvenile record of stealing cars and small-time drug deals. His own mother couldn’t rein him in, having asked Baltimore City officials to hold him in juvenile detention, Coffin noted.
“He blocked his mother’s phone calls,” Coffin told the judge. “He was out of control.”
Caprio had been dispatched to investigate a suspicious Jeep spotted by neighbors in Perry Hall. On a suburban cul-de-sac, she encountered Harris behind the wheel.
She blocked his way out with her patrol car, jumped out and ordered him to stop. The Jeep sped toward her and she drew her gun, screaming, “Stop! Stop!”
Harris stopped the Jeep and cracked the door as if to surrender. Jurors watched her body camera footage during the trial. Then Harris ducked down and gunned the Jeep. She fired once through the windshield — she missed him — before he ran her over.
The teen ditched the Jeep nearby. He was walking down the street when arrested.
In a 14-hour interview with detectives, Harris admitted that he panicked.
“Once I seen the gun, I put my head down and closed my eyes,” he told them. “It was like five seconds before I pushed on the gas.”
Caprio suffered broken ribs and crushing injuries to her internal organs. Neighbors found her bleeding in the street with tire marks across her legs.
While in jail awaiting trial, Harris was cited for graffiti, pornography, threatening another inmate and cussing out the guards, Coffin told the judge Wednesday. She said the teen once said, ‘F— that pregnant b—. I hope someone beats the s— out of her.”
“Nothing will stop him,” she told the judge. “He has no concern for consequence. He has no concern for law and order. His actions demand the sentence of life.”
Brown, however, urged the judge to consider the boy’s environment in the Gilmor Homes public housing projects, with its crime and lead paint and the trash and rats in the street.
“Sounds like something from ‘Les Misérables,’” Brown told the judge. “To cast him as someone who is beyond redemption is absolutely wrong.”
A jailhouse chaplain told the judge how a haunted Harris broke down crying to him, saying he could no longer sleep. And that the teen would submit prayer requests for the Caprio family.
Harris did not speak, but Brown read his letter.
“We’re still kids who do things without thinking,” the teen wrote. “I just wish I could go back to that day.”
In recent years, teen prison sentences have become a matter of debate in the United States. In 2012, the Supreme Court prohibited mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles. Last year, Maryland’s high court upheld life sentences for juveniles, finding the state parole system offers them meaningful opportunities for release.
Harris will be eligible for parole, after serving 15 years, although Shellenberger said inmates convicted of murder typically spend more than 30 years behind bars.
The three other teens pleaded guilty in June to the felony murder of Caprio.
Felony murder occurs when there is a killing during the commission of a felony crime: in this case, the burglaries. Under Maryland law, those who commit the underlying felony can be held responsible for the murder, too. Therefore, the three teens also faced life in prison if convicted.
After Harris’ trial, however, they accepted plea deals.
Each pleaded guilty to felony murder for a maximum of 30 years in prison. They are to be sentenced next month.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who represents Perry Hall where Caprio was killed, sent out a statement after the verdict thanking prosecutors for pursuing the toughest sentence.
“No penalty can bring back Officer Caprio or eliminate the pain Mr. Harris inflicted on the family,” the councilman wrote.
A young wife and graduate of Loch Raven High School and Towson University, Caprio was the first Baltimore County Police officer to be killed on duty since 2013.
Wednesday morning, her mother, Debra Byus Sorrells, told the judge of Amy’s childhood as the youngest of three girls: her honors grades in school and soccer games. Now, everything around the house stirs up a memory, Sorrells said.
“When I choose to look at May 21 negatively, it pulls me down into a deep, bottomless pit,” she told the judge. “I cannot go there, because I fear I cannot escape.”
Instead, Sorrells sees her daughter again through happy memories. She sees her through Amy’s sisters, too.
She told the judge of a shining, winged form that circled Amy’s casket.
“I see her through the dragonfly,” she said.
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