2021 | Courts

Appellate court overturns murder conviction of Bethesda man accused of tunnel digger’s death

Involuntary manslaughter conviction upheld; Beckwitt will be resentenced

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An appellate court has overturned a two-year-old murder conviction against a Bethesda man in connection with the death of a Silver Spring man in a house fire.

Daniel Beckwitt, now 29, was convicted in April 2019 of second-degree depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter for the death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra in September 2017.

On Friday, a panel of three judges on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the murder conviction, but upheld the manslaughter conviction.

The court said there is sufficient evidence for “reckless disregard for human life,” the standard that must be met for a manslaughter conviction. But there wasn’t enough evidence to show “extreme disregard for human life,” the standard needed for a depraved heart murder conviction, Judges Donald Beachley, Christopher Kehoe and former judge Timothy Meredith wrote in their opinion.

Beckwitt, a millionaire stock trader, met Khafra online. Khafra was looking for investors in a smartphone application, according to court documents. Beckwitt agreed to invest about $10,000 in exchange for a 5% stake.

Beckwitt had been digging tunnels under his Bethesda home because he feared a nuclear war with North Korea. When Khafra’s business idea failed, Beckwitt hired Khafra to help dig the tunnels as repayment of the $10,000 debt, according to court documents.

Beckwitt tried to keep the tunnel project secret through various methods, including by picking up Khafra and blindfolding him to conceal the address, court documents state.

Early on the morning of Sept. 10, 2017, Khafra sent a text message to Beckwitt that the power had gone out in the tunnels and that he smelled smoke, asking Beckwitt to fix the problem.

Beckwitt saw the message later that morning and told Khafra there had been an electrical failure. Beckwitt then switched power to the tunnels to a different circuit, court documents state.

Later in the afternoon, Beckwitt went to the basement to reset the circuit breaker and heard an explosion as he went back upstairs.

He saw smoke and went back into the basement to try to tell Khafra what had happened, but was “overcome by smoke” and left, court documents state. Beckwitt told neighbors to call 911.

When firefighters got to the house, they found Khafra’s body in the basement.

Beckwitt was convicted of murder and manslaughter in April 2019, then sentenced to nine years in prison two months later.

The Court of Special Appeals judges wrote that evidence shows that Beckwitt “demonstrated a reckless disregard for human life” by hiring Khafra to dig the tunnels, because there was a history of electrical failures and because the basement was cluttered with trash and debris, which made exiting difficult.

“Khafra could not easily call for or receive emergency assistance because Beckwitt had sought to conceal his location, and the door leading from the basement to the outside may have been locked,” their opinion stated. “Accordingly, the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction for gross negligence involuntary manslaughter.”

The judges went on to write that there is a fine line between “reckless” and “extreme” disregard for human life, but a “depraved heart murder” conviction requires a higher degree of certainty of death, based on the evidence.

“Although the circumstances in this case were dangerous enough to sustain a conviction for gross negligence involuntary manslaughter, they were not so egregious as to indicate that death was the likely, if not certain result, so as to satisfy the malice element of depraved heart murder. Accordingly, the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction for depraved heart murder,” the judges wrote in their opinion.

The Associated Press reported the appellate court’s decision earlier on Friday.

The judges wrote in the opinion on Friday that the case has been remanded to Montgomery County Circuit Court, where Beckwitt will be resentenced on the manslaughter charge.

Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat Friday afternoon that the office is evaluating the court’s 60-plus-page opinion.

“But [Beckwitt] remains in jail and remains convicted,” he wrote. “What we face is a resentencing and a review of our appellate options.”

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