2022 | Courts

Appeals court upholds ruling that Bethesda tunnel digger case involved manslaughter, not murder

Daniel Beckwitt will be resentenced in Circuit Court in connection with the death of Askia Khafra

share this

The Beckwitt home in Bethesda seen on Sept. 27, 2017. Askia Khafra, 21, died in a fire inside the home.

Photo by Dan Morse/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Maryland’s highest court has upheld a ruling that vacated the murder conviction against a Bethesda man who was charged in connection with the death of a Silver Spring man in a 2017 house fire.

Daniel Beckwitt, now 30, remains guilty of manslaughter in the death of Askia Khafra, 21.

Beckwitt was a millionaire stock trader in 2017 who had met Khafra. Khafra contacted Beckwitt about investing in a smartphone application and Beckwitt agreed to invest $10,000 in exchange for a 5% stake, according to charging documents.

According to authorities, Beckwitt had been digging tunnels under his Bethesda home because he feared a nuclear war with North Korea. When Khafra’s idea for the smartphone app failed, Beckwitt allegedly hired him to dig the tunnels in order to repay the $10,000 debt. Beckwitt would blindfold Khafra in order to prevent him from knowing the address as a way to keep the project secret, according to documents.

Early on Sept. 10, 2017, Khafra alerted Beckwitt in a text message that the power had gone out in the tunnels and that he smelled smoke. When Beckwitt saw the message later that morning, he told Khafra there had been an electrical failure and switched the power to a different circuit, according to documents.

Beckwitt went to the basement to reset the breaker that afternoon, and heard an explosion as he went back upstairs, according to documents. When he went back to tell Khafra what had happened, he was “overcome by smoke” and left, according to documents. He then told neighbors to call 911.

When firefighters arrived, they found Khafra’s body in the middle of the basement, according to documents.

Beckwitt was convicted of second-degree depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter in April 2019, and was later sentenced to nine years in prison.

In January 2021, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the murder conviction but upheld the manslaughter conviction. A three-judge panel determined in its ruling that Beckwitt demonstrated a “reckless” disregard for human life in hiring Khafra to dig the tunnels, but not an “extreme” disregard for human life. Because a depraved heart murder conviction requires that the circumstances present a more likely degree of certainty of death, the “reckless” standard was not enough to support the murder conviction, the Court of Special Appeals found.

Following the Court of Special Appeals’ ruling, Beckwitt filed an appeal of the manslaughter conviction on the grounds that the jury at the original trial should have received instructions about the type of involuntary manslaughter to consider. Beckwitt was convicted of gross negligent manslaughter, which refers to a person acting in a negligent manner that shows disregard for another person’s safety, his attorney Megan Coleman told Bethesda Beat previously. Beckwitt’s attorneys argued in his appeal that the jury should have received instructions about legal duty manslaughter, which deals with a person’s failure to act when they have a legal duty to do so.

The state filed a conditional cross appeal in response to Beckwitt’s appeal, and in June, the Court of Appeals agreed to consider both Beckwitt’s appeal and the state’s conditional cross-appeal.

Court of Appeals Judge Shirley Watts, in an opinion filed on Friday, wrote that Beckwitt’s conduct “was reprehensible and demonstrated an indifference to the risk of danger to which Khafra was exposed and satisfied all the elements for both gross negligence and legal duty involuntary manslaughter…”

The evidence was enough for the gross negligence standard because Khafra was forced to work in dangerous conditions, Watts wrote. The legal duty standard was met because Khafra worked for Beckwitt and Beckwitt had a legal duty to provide a safe workplace, she wrote.

Beckwitt will be resentenced in Montgomery County Circuit Court at a later date, the State’s Attorney’s office announced on Friday. He faces up to nine years in prison but could receive credit for time already served.

State’s Attorney John McCarthy said in a statement on Friday that he is pleased the Court of Appeals affirmed the Court of Special Appeals’ ruling.

“The State will seek the maximum penalty in this case to hold the defendant accountable for his blatant disregard for the life of victim, Askia Khafra,” he said in the statement.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com