2021 | Courts

State’s highest court to hear case of Bethesda man convicted of tunnel digger’s death

Lower court had overturned murder conviction, upheld manslaughter conviction

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The Maryland Court of Appeals will consider the case of a Bethesda man who was convicted of murder and manslaughter in connection with the death of a Silver Spring man who died in a house fire. The murder charge was later overturned through an appeal.

Daniel Beckwitt, now 30, was charged in connection with the death of Askia Khafra, 21, in September 2017. Khafra worked for Beckwitt by digging tunnels under his Bethesda home.

Beckwitt was convicted by a jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court in April 2019 of second-degree depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter.

The murder conviction was overturned in January by the Court of Special Appeals. That decision also upheld the manslaughter conviction.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals granted certiorari to an appeal of the Court of Special Appeals’ prior ruling, meaning that the state’s top court will hear the case in the fall.

The Court of Appeals will consider multiple issues, including whether there was sufficient evidence to convict Beckwitt of involuntary manslaughter, Beckwitt’s attorney Megan Coleman told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday.

Coleman added that the appeal also raises the question of whether the jury should have received instructions about “legal duty manslaughter” instead of “gross negligence” manslaughter, which is what Beckwitt was convicted of.

The state has filed a cross-appeal, asking the court to consider whether the Court of Special Appeals was wrong to overturn the murder conviction, Coleman said.

Legal duty manslaughter refers to a “failure to act” when someone has a “legal duty” to act, Coleman explained. It differs from gross negligence manslaughter, which refers to a person acting in a “grossly negligent manger” that causes disregard to another’s safety, she said.

Legal-duty manslaughter applies in the case of Beckwitt, Coleman said, because he and Khafra had an employer-employee relationship.

“If you’re walking down the street and you see somebody get injured and you don’t go to their assistance and they die, you’re not gonna be convicted of failing to act, because you don’t owe a legal duty to a stranger,” she said.

“In this case, [the state] alleged it was an employer-employee relationship and therefore Mr. Beckwitt had a legal duty to act to prevent harm. That is the theory that the state gave for legal duty manslaughter.”

Beckwitt hired Khafra to dig the tunnels, acting on his fear of a nuclear war with North Korea, authorities said at the time.

The two previously met online when Khafra asked Beckwitt to invest in a smartphone application he was working on. When Khafra’s project failed, Beckwitt hired him to dig the tunnels.

On Sept. 10, 2017, Khafra told Beckwitt that the power had gone out in the tunnels and he smelled smoke. Beckwitt later told Khafra there had been an electrical failure and switched power to the tunnels to a different circuit.

When Beckwitt went to reset the circuit breaker later, he heard an explosion and called 911. When firefighters arrived, they found Khafra’s body.

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

After the Court of Special Appeals struck the murder conviction this year, the case was headed back to circuit court. But Coleman said that won’t happen, now that the case is headed to the Court of Appeals.

There are multiple possibilities for how the court could rule.

The court could reinstate the murder conviction, meaning Beckwitt would serve out his sentence, Coleman said. It could also affirm the Court of Special Appeals ruling, which would remand the case to circuit court.

Or the top court could determine that there is insufficient evidence for a manslaughter conviction, she said.

The court could also determine that there is sufficient evidence for involuntary manslaughter, but the jury received improper instructions because it did not include legal duty manslaughter. That could lead to a new trial, Coleman said.

Briefs in the appeal are scheduled to be filed over the summer, and oral arguments are set for November, Coleman said.

WTOP reported on Beckwitt’s appeal Tuesday.

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