Judge Denies Motion for Acquittal in Beckwitt Murder Trial

Judge Denies Motion for Acquittal in Beckwitt Murder Trial

Key witness to be called before jury as defense presents its case

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The judge in the case of a Bethesda man accused of second-degree murder on Wednesday morning denied a motion by defense attorneys to acquit their client after prosecutors wrapped up their case.

The trial for Daniel Beckwitt, 27, began last Wednesday. He is facing charges of second-degree “depraved heart” murder and involuntary manslaughter after a Silver Spring man was killed  in a Bethesda house fire nearly two years ago while digging tunnels under the property for a bunker.

Askia Khafra had been working for Beckwitt to build the tunnel system, but became trapped when a fire broke out in the basement in September 2017, according to testimony and charging documents.

Attorneys for Beckwitt asked a motion for judgment of acquittal, but Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer denied the request.

“I believe there’s evidence in this case that a jury could find he was working under circumstances that are not safe.”

Schweitzer cited cases that found employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace for employees, and even though Beckwitt was not the owner of the house, he was responsible for the property.

Beckwitt feared an attack from North Korea and began digging tunnels for a bunker under the house, near Bethesda’s National Institutes of Health campus.

“He has control,” Schweitzer said.

State prosecutors wrapped up their presentations after three days of witness testimony, including firefighters and first responders who inspected the property following the fire. The jury was shown body camera video from firefighters depicting a cluttered residence filled with debris, illustrating the intense hoarding conditions often cited by prosecutors.

County firefighter Don Boyd, who did fire investigation and evidence collection, and told the jury Tuesday that there were no viable exits in the basement, given the size of the exit points and where they were located.

Boyd said the residence had at least three to four feet of items on the first and second floors, with decent path to get around house, and debris from five to seven feet with some areas of narrow pathways in the basement. He added it took a team of 24 firefighters nearly three weeks to clear the items.

The defense will be calling Douglas Hart as its first witness on Wednesday. Hart is a 23-year-old from New York who worked in the tunnels before Khafra was hired.

Hart first interacted with Beckwitt in early 2016, and began working in the tunnel in October of that year. He made visits to the residence through April 2017.

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