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Events leading to Baltimore County Police Officer's death disputed in opening arguments of murder trial

Posted at 1:15 PM, Apr 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-24 09:19:13-04

TOWSON, Md. — After seating a jury Monday, the murder trial of the Baltimore teen charged with striking Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio with a stolen Jeep, killing her, began Tuesday in a packed court room in Towson.

Dawnta Harris was 16 at the time prosecutors said he drove the stolen Jeep at Caprio as she confronted him at the end of a cul-de-sac Perry Hall in May of 2018. Caprio had been investigating a call about suspicious activity in the area, specifically referring to the Jeep.

According to both prosecutors and Harris’ defense team, Caprio confronted Harris as he sat in the car, but the cadence of events from there is a key contention at the heart of the trial.

When charging Harris last spring, police and prosecutors said Caprio got out of her patrol car and engaged with Harris, ordering him out of the Jeep, at which point he opened the door, then proceeded to drive at Caprio, who fired a shot at the Jeep in an effort to stop the vehicle before ultimately being struck and killed. They said officer worn body camera footage will confirm such a narrative.

That argument was reiterated in the prosecution’s opening statements Tuesday, where they said “disturbing” body worn camera footage shows Caprio respond to the burglary call, find the Jeep, raise her weapon, and shout at least seven times for Harris to exit the vehicle. He then drives at her, at which point she fires her gun.

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During a press conference Harris’ lawyers held last May, they said Caprio stepped out of her car and immediately escalated the situation, shouting at Harris and drawing her gun, when, to her knowledge, at that point she should have just been engaging in a routine traffic stop. They said Caprio fired a shot at Harris before he drove at her, and that after being shot at, he ducked below the wheel and tried to flee in a “fight or flight” response, unintentionally striking and killing Caprio.

They had not seen the body camera footage at the time and implored the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office and Police to release the footage, insinuating that not doing so bolstered their description of events. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he would not release the footage as to not taint a potential jury pool.

Harris' defense reiterated that argument in their opening statement Tuesday, saying Harris was scared when he saw the gun pointed at him, so he ducked and didn’t mean to hit Caprio, calling her death an accident, not murder.

Harris, along with three other teens, were charged as adults in Caprio’s murder. Police said the group had been perpetrating burglaries in the area the day of Caprio’s death. Three teens were in the midst of such a burglary when Harris was sitting in the Jeep prior to striking Caprio, police said. Because of Maryland’s felony murder statute, in which anyone involved in the commission of a felony crime can also be charged in a murder that is deemed a result of that crime, all four teens have been charged with first-degree murder. The other three defendants are expected to stand trial in September.

At the trial Tuesday, prosecutors recounted that scenario, saying Harris had been involved in two burglaries before assuming the role of getaway driver in the third. His defense team said Harris did not know the others he was riding with were committing burglaries, as he had been in the back seat of the Jeep until its third stop, moving to the front so he could control the radio.

Prosecutors proceeded to call six witnesses in the trial's afternoon session Tuesday. The first was a woman who lived on Linwen Way, where Caprio was killed. Prosecutors played the 911 calls she made to police when she saw the "suspicious Jeep" and teens circling neighboring houses, spotting movement inside one home where the witness knew the residents were not home. As she called 911 a third time, she saw Caprio confront the Jeep, heard a shot fired as the Jeep took off. Another person from the neighborhood also testified that that afternoon, he saw a black Jeep speed through his cul-de-sac and the male driver park it and then leave it, walking out of the neighborhood. When the witness went to look at the Jeep, he saw what he thought was a bullet hole and called 911. He was later used to identify Harris as the driver.

Four Baltimore County Police Officers also were called to testify. The first was the officer who responded after an "officer in distress" call went out on police radio. He performed breathing CPR on Caprio, saying he arrived to see neighbors performing compression CPR. Upon cross examination, he admitted such compression could cause further rib cage injuries. Caprio was determined to have at least 10 broken ribs. Another officer was Caprio's shift commander, who took possession of Caprio's body worn camera as she was transported to the hospital, turning it over to the county's technology department. The last two officers took part in Harris' arrest that day in May. One made the initial arrest and the other transported one of the above witnesses to identify Harris.

Both Harris and Caprio's families were present in the courtroom during Tuesday's trial.

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Harris had previous run-ins with the law as a juvenile offender. Controversy ensued after his arrest as his mother broke down during that May press conference, saying Harris should not have been out on the street at the time of Caprio’s murder, but instead should have been in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services, prompting finger pointing between DJS officials and Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

In May, WMAR-2 News’ Brian Kuebler broke down the series of events that led to Harris being unaccounted for after being considered AWOL from DJS services the week prior to Caprio’s death.

WMAR-2 News reporter Abby Isaacs contributed to this story.