Towson, MD (WMAR) — The teen who struck and killed a Baltimore County police officer with a stolen jeep was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole on Wednesday.
Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Jan Alexander heard emotional statements from Amy Caprio’s mother and husband, as well as a letter written from Harris that was read aloud by his attorney. Although Harris had nothing to say out loud in court, he wrote that he was sorry.
“I believe justice was appropriately served. However, it doesn’t fill that feeling that I miss and that hole in my heart,” said her husband Tim Caprio.
He, Amy’s parents, family and friends gathered outside the courthouse after her killer was handed a life sentence.
“There’s not winners at this point. What we see is a validation that there are consequences for actions,” said Amy’s father Garry Sorrells.
The judge sentenced 17-year-old Dawnta Harris to life with the possibility of parole. In May, a jury found Dawnta Harris guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio on May 21, 2018.
Prosecutors said Harris was the lookout and getaway driver while the other three teens were breaking inside a house.
When Caprio confronted Harris as he sat in the jeep, that’s when he drove forward, striking Caprio with the jeep and killing her.
His attorney argued Harris didn’t mean to kill Caprio, that he was scared because a gun was aimed at him and that he panicked, ducking and driving forward.
The jury also found him guilty of theft for stealing the jeep and first-degree burglary.
The sentencing hearing started with a motion for a new trial filed by Harris’ defense. Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon brought up concerns with the “limited” cross-examination of the state’s lead witness Det. Barton, who conducted Harris’ interrogation after he was arrested. He also said the jury should have received instructions about an arrest without probable cause and the legality of resisting an unlawful arrest. Assistant State’s Attorney Zarena Sita argued that those claims contrasted with the evidence presented during trial and Judge Alexander denied the motion for a new trial.
At the start of sentencing, Amy’s mother Debra Sorrells read an emotional victim impact statement. She described to the judge that before Amy was born, she suffered a very traumatic miscarriage and almost wrote off having more children because she didn’t want to go through that devastating pain again. However, she wanted to have three children and went on to have two more daughters. Amy was the last of three. Years later, she told her three daughters about the miscarriage and said if that didn’t happen, they wouldn’t have Amy and posed the questions, “Can you imagine our lives without Amy?” She said that’s when she understood why she miscarried. Now, 15 months after Amy’s death, she said she still cannot imagine life without her.
“Amy was and still is very much a part of us,” said Sorrells. “Some memories make us laugh out loud… some make us cry and miss her terribly.”
But she said those emotions validate her life and she vowed to keep her alive in spirit. She said instead of focusing on all the negative of May 21, 2018, she chooses to look at the positive. That Amy was not alone in her final moments. That the sun was shining. That officers and nurses supported her and her family and worked to protect public safety in the moments after she was hit and killed.
“Amy is with us I have no doubt about that. I see her through her sisters, friends, co-workers… through stories and songs… I see her in the dragonfly,” said Sorrells.
Amy’s husband of three years, Tim Caprio, also addressed the judge. He called Amy’s killing “remorseless” and said Harris didn’t not deserve to hear from him, but that Amy deserved to be remembered. He described the deep depression he has been navigating through since her death. He called Amy the love of his life and said the 8.5 years he knew her were the best years of his life. Just days before her death, they celebrated their 3rd wedding anniversary and just days after, they would have celebrated both their birthdays. He said May used to be their month to celebrate but now he can’t wait for it to end.
“I go home to an empty house knowing no one will every come home,” said Caprio. “There is a massive hole and feeling of emptiness in my hearth that will never go away.”
After hearing from her family, Assistance State’s Attorney Robin Coffin argued for a life sentence, saying nothing will stop him; he has no concern for consequences. She said her killing was not an isolated incident and Harris chose to return to his co-defendants instead of leaving the scene, before he hit her. She said Harris was not remorseful and his prior record stealing cars proves he knew what he was doing.
“It was absolutely conscience and deliberate,” said Coffin.
She said 11 days before the murder, Harris was released and placed on community supervision and given an ankle bracelet, despite pleas from his mother to keep him locked up, because she couldn’t control him. She also read part of the pre-sentence investigation, which she said listed different infractions Harris has committed in jail since he was arrested.
“Graffiti…possession of pornography…extorting commissary… refusing orders… cussing at officers,” said Coffin.
Co-counsel Warren Brown started the argument on behalf of Harris, asking for a sentence of 30 years, what the other three defendants in the case are facing. He also asked that he be held at Patuxent Institution in the Youth Offenders Program, which dedicates more resources to counseling and rehabilitation.
“He is not beyond redemption,” said Brown.
Brown said Harris’ mother didn’t want to speak up in court but wrote that her heart goes out to the Caprio family. He called up Rev. James McCray from Uncuffed Ministries, who encountered Harris in prison. He said Harris went to his bible study classes and once confessed to him through tears, “I thought she was gonna move,” referring to Caprio at the time he hit her. He also said Harris submits prayer requests for the Caprio family.
“He does have remorse,” said McCray.
He said he has grown to be a leader of the young man and is not the same boy who came into jail 15 months ago.
Then, at Harris’ request because he was too nervous, Brown read a letter Harris wrote.
“I am truly sad, heartbroken and sorry for what happened,” Harris wrote. “We are still young. No one is perfect.”
He said he didn’t want to hit her, just escape, saying he felt like it was a life or death situation because a gun was pointed at him. He asked the Caprio family for forgiveness and asked the judge for a second chance, saying he wants to get his GED and become a welder technician. He said he’s grateful he is still alive and wants to work to find his purpose.
Co-counsel J. Wyndal Gordon continued their plea for a 30-year sentence. He called the choice to drive off a “reckless, horrendous decision,” but said because Harris was 16 years old when it happened, he couldn’t evaluate consequences of his actions.
Harris declined to say anything out loud in court and after considering his prior record, the pre-sentence investigation, and what he heard in court, Judge Alexander sentenced him life with the possibility of parole for the first-degree felony murder of Baltimore County police officer Amy Caprio.
Harris’ defense says they are not surprised by the sentence but plan to appeal and are grateful he can spend part of his time at the Patuxent Institution.
“I think that the life sentence was very appropriate for the actions in this case. Nobody here is happy today. All of us would rather have Amy with us rather than having to come to court and deal with this sentencing but we do feel like justice was served today,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.
“She was selfless. She always put other before her. She was the best person that I ever knew,” said Caprio.
“Amy didn’t have the opportunity to be all that she could be for herself and for her community and as a police officer, she demonstrated really the whole concept all the police officers are which is to serve and protect,” said Garry Sorrells.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks released a statement on the sentencing of Dawnta Harris:
“No penalty can bring back Officer Caprio or eliminate the pain Mr. Harris inflicted on the family of Officer Caprio or the Perry Hall neighborhood I represent. I would like to thank the prosecutors who pursued the toughest sanctions allowed by law.” The other three teens, 17-year-old Derrick Matthews, 17-year-old Darrell Ward and 18-year-old Eugene Genius pleaded guilty in June to first degree murder charges for their involvement in the burglaries at the time of Caprio’s death. They will be sentenced in September and face a maximum sentence of 30 years.