2019 | Courts

Judge Denies New Trial for Bethesda Man Convicted of Murder

Beckwitt case expected to be appealed to Court of Special Appeals

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Judge Margaret Schweitzer denied a motion for a new trial in Daniel Beckwitt's murder conviction.

Staff photo

A Bethesda man convicted of murder following the death of a Silver Spring man in a house fire nearly two years ago lost his first bid for a new trial Thursday.

Daniel Beckwitt, 28, was found guilty of second-degree “depraved heart” murder and involuntary manslaughter after a two-week jury trial in late April. He faces up to 30 years in prison for the death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra in a September 2017 fire that trapped Khafra in a tunnel he was digging below Beckwitt’s Bethesda house.

Defense attorneys argued that insufficient evidence, inadequate jury instructions and an unfair verdict are grounds for a new trial, but Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer ruled reopening the case would “not be in the interest of justice.”

Beckwitt is scheduled to be sentenced on Monday. He appeared in court  Thursday in a green prison jumpsuit, only speaking to greet Schweitzer and requesting hand sanitizer, which was denied.

Defense attorney Robert Bonsib asked Schweitzer to reconsider the convictions, citing the prosecution’s use of photographs illustrating the hoarding conditions of the house and basement, along with the undetermined circumstances surrounding Khafra’s death.

Bonsib also questioned the jury’s understanding of common law workplace requirements, arguing the members weren’t adequately educated on what employers are legally expected to provide employees. County prosecutors had argued Beckwitt failed to provide a safe working environment.

Prosecutor Marybeth Ayres responded by pointing to testimony from fire and rescue personnel detailing the state of the house and basement, providing circumstantial evidence as to the conditions Khafra had to navigate before he died.

“A duty to provide a safe workplace is without caveat,” Ayres said. “This house was a garbage dump with an impassable exit in case of emergency.”

According to police and prosecutors, Beckwitt wanted to build a bunker under the house because he feared a North Korean attack and had hired several workers to dig tunnels.

Bonsib is expected to file an appeal for a new trial in the Court of Special Appeals.

Beckwitt is being held without bond in a county detention center.

Khafra’s parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Beckwitt, a millionaire stock trader.

Charlie Wright can be reached at charlie.wright@bethesdamagazine.com