Beckwitt v. State, No. 794, Sept. Term, 2019

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtBeachley, J.
Citation249 Md.App. 333,245 A.3d 201
Decision Date28 January 2021
Docket NumberNo. 794, Sept. Term, 2019
Parties Daniel BECKWITT v. STATE of Maryland

249 Md.App. 333
245 A.3d 201

Daniel BECKWITT
v.
STATE of Maryland

No. 794, Sept. Term, 2019

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

January 28, 2021


Argued by: Megan E. Coleman (Robert C. Bonsib and MarcusBonsib, LLC on the brief), Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellant.

Argued by: Carrie J. Williams (Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General on the brief), Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

* Meredith, Kehoe, Beachley, JJ.

Beachley, J.

249 Md.App. 346

Following a trial that spanned over two weeks, a jury in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County found appellant, Daniel Beckwitt, guilty of second-degree depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter. The court sentenced appellant to twenty-one years’ imprisonment, suspending all but nine, for depraved heart murder, and merged the conviction for involuntary manslaughter. Appellant timely appealed and presents the following four issues for our review:

1. Was the evidence legally sufficient to sustain [appellant's] convictions for depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter?

2. Did the trial court err by giving flawed jury instructions on murder and manslaughter?

3. Did the prosecutor's repeated improper remarks during closing and rebuttal closing arguments result in reversible error?

4. Did the suppression court err in denying [appellant's] request for a
245 A.3d 209
hearing pursuant to Franks v. Delaware[1 ]?

We hold that the evidence was legally sufficient to sustain appellant's conviction for gross negligence involuntary manslaughter, but was insufficient to sustain the depraved heart murder conviction. We reject appellant's remaining allegations of error. We shall therefore reverse appellant's conviction for depraved heart murder and remand for sentencing on the previously merged involuntary manslaughter conviction.

249 Md.App. 347

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This case involves the tragic death of Askia Khafra, a twenty-one-year-old who died while trying to escape a fire in appellant's basement. At the time of the fire, appellant was twenty-six years old. The unfortunate series of events that brought Khafra and appellant together arose from Khafra's idea to create a smartphone application or "app" called Equity Shark. Khafra envisioned Equity Shark as streamlining the process for average people to invest in "starter companies" or small businesses that had not yet gone public and needed funding. Khafra expended considerable effort in developing the app. In furtherance of that goal, Khafra browsed internet chatrooms looking for investors. Khafra found his first investor—appellant—in such a chatroom.

Khafra pitched his business idea to appellant, and explained that he was looking for approximately $5,000 to go to San Francisco to apply for a Thiel Fellowship.2 According to the parties’ briefs, appellant invested approximately $10,000 for a 5% stake in Equity Shark.3 Khafra and appellant went on to develop a close friendship. Khafra apparently became fascinated with appellant due to appellant's wealth and financial success. Khafra looked to appellant as someone who could help him grow Equity Shark, not just financially, but by assisting with computer coding and other efforts needed to develop the app into a viable business. Unfortunately, Equity Shark never took off as planned, and Khafra was not accepted for the Thiel Fellowship.

In order to repay appellant's $10,000 investment, Khafra agreed to dig tunnels underneath appellant's house. Appellant

249 Md.App. 348

had been building tunnels and an underground bunker beneath his home because he apparently feared a nuclear war with North Korea.

Khafra was not the first person to dig tunnels for appellant. Douglas Hart, who was approximately twenty years old at the time,4 dug tunnels on several occasions from approximately October 2016 to April 2017. Logistically, Hart would drive his car

245 A.3d 210

to Maryland,5 meet appellant at a McDonald's, and then appellant would require Hart to wear sunglasses with duct tape on them to obscure Hart's vision while appellant drove the two to appellant's home. Despite the fact that appellant actually lived in Maryland, he gave Hart the impression that they were going to Virginia. When Hart visited appellant to dig tunnels, he typically stayed in the tunnels and basement area for approximately a month at a time and understood that he was not allowed into the rest of the house. Hart indicated that he was physically incapable of leaving the basement/tunnel area, and that although there was a door from the basement leading directly to the outside, that door was kept locked and appellant always had the key. When Hart communicated to appellant that he wanted to go outside for fresh air or to get food, however, appellant would oblige him. Nevertheless, appellant required Hart to wear the duct-taped sunglasses upon going outside to prevent Hart from learning the location of appellant's house.

In early 2017, Khafra began digging tunnels at appellant's home for $150 a day. Appellant typically picked Khafra up at Khafra's parents’ house in the early morning hours, around 3:00 a.m., and like Hart, required Khafra to be blindfolded during the trip to appellant's house.6 Khafra would dig underneath

249 Md.App. 349

appellant's home approximately once a month to every two months, and would stay anywhere from a few days to a few weeks at a time.7 During his stays, Khafra mostly remained in the bunker area in the tunnels. According to appellant's brief, "Khafra roamed freely in the basement and the tunnels, but he was not permitted to come up to the first or second floors of the residence." Rather than take showers, Khafra cleaned himself using disposable wipes. To relieve himself, Khafra would urinate and defecate in a bucket he kept in the tunnels. Every few days, Khafra and appellant used a winch system to haul the bucket from the basement to the first floor, where appellant himself would dispose of its contents in the first-floor bathroom. Because appellant did not own a phone, Khafra could only communicate with appellant from the basement and tunnels using Google apps such as Google Voice and V Chat.8 Appellant used numerous extension cords and power strips to provide electricity to the tunnels. In his interviews with police, appellant intimated his familiarity with the failing power cords and having to reset the circuit breaker.

On September 3, 2017, Khafra went to appellant's home to resume work in the tunnels. A week later, while digging in the tunnels on September 10 at 2:32 a.m., Khafra messaged appellant using Google Hangouts, stating "holy [s**t] bro there's no power down here." Approximately five minutes later, at 2:37 a.m., Khafra indicated that there was smoke in the basement.

245 A.3d 211

At 2:51 a.m., Khafra wrote again, stating that he no longer believed there was smoke in the basement, but

249 Md.App. 350

that the lights had gone out and it was "pitch black down [there]" with no airflow. Khafra's message asked appellant to "please try to fix when you see this."

Appellant did not see Khafra's messages until he woke up at approximately 9 a.m. At 9:27 a.m., appellant wrote to Khafra that there had been a "pretty major electrical failure" and that appellant was switching the power over to a different circuit. Appellant then went back to sleep, and awoke at approximately 3 p.m. Appellant went downstairs from his second-floor bedroom to get something to eat, and at around 4 p.m., he heard a beeping sound coming from the carbon monoxide detector in the dining room. Appellant understood the beep to signify a loss of power, which he confirmed when he could no longer hear the refrigerator running. Appellant waited approximately twenty to thirty minutes, believing that the circuit breaker would reset itself. When the power failed to return, appellant went to the basement to manually reset the breaker. Appellant did not see Khafra while in the basement resetting the breaker.

On his way up the stairs from the basement to the first floor, appellant heard an explosion, which he believed to be either the refrigerator's compressor or the air conditioner. Appellant went to the kitchen to see if the refrigerator's compressor was working, and immediately saw smoke rising out of the kitchen floor. Appellant promptly headed back to the basement to tell Khafra that there was a fire, and that Khafra needed to get out. Appellant heard Khafra yell "yo dude," but he could not see him through all of the smoke. Fearing that he would not be able to take the basement stairs to the first floor, appellant exited the basement by unlocking the basement door that led directly to the outside.9 Because he did not have a cellular phone, and because it would have been dangerous to return to his second-floor bedroom to call 9-1-1

249 Md.App. 351

from his computer, appellant...

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7 practice notes
  • Clark Office Bldg., LLC v. MCM Capital Partners, LLLP, No. 544, Sept. Term, 2019
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 29 January 2021
    ...(1990). If it does contain such a restriction, it is enforceable so long as consent is not unreasonably withheld. Id . at 11, 575 A.2d 735.245 A.3d 201 A lease may be created orally so long as that is not prohibited by statute or other law and there is evidence to support an intention on th......
  • Beckwitt v. State, 16, Sept. Term, 2021
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 28 January 2022
    ...gross negligence involuntary manslaughter but insufficient to support the conviction for depraved heart murder. See Beckwitt v. State, 249 Md. App. 333, 346, 245 A.3d 201, 209 (2021).Beckwitt filed a petition for a writ of certiorari raising four issues—whether the circuit court lacked subj......
  • Beckwitt v. State, 16-2021
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • 28 January 2022
    ...gross negligence involuntary manslaughter but insufficient to support the conviction for depraved heart murder. See Beckwitt v. State, 249 Md.App. 333, 346, 245 A.3d 201, 209 (2021). Beckwitt filed a petition for a writ of certiorari raising four issues-whether the circuit court lacked subj......
  • Alexander v. State, 500-2021
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 21 March 2022
    ...With respect to appellate review of a trial court's rulings upon objections to closing arguments, we observed in Beckwitt v. State, 249 Md.App. 333, 385 (2021), aff'd on other grounds, __Md.__, No. 16, Sept. Term, 2021, slip op. at 1-3; 2022 WL 260176, *1-2 (filed January 28, 2022): "Where ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
7 cases
  • Clark Office Bldg., LLC v. MCM Capital Partners, LLLP, No. 544, Sept. Term, 2019
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 29 January 2021
    ...(1990). If it does contain such a restriction, it is enforceable so long as consent is not unreasonably withheld. Id . at 11, 575 A.2d 735.245 A.3d 201 A lease may be created orally so long as that is not prohibited by statute or other law and there is evidence to support an intention on th......
  • Beckwitt v. State, 16, Sept. Term, 2021
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 28 January 2022
    ...gross negligence involuntary manslaughter but insufficient to support the conviction for depraved heart murder. See Beckwitt v. State, 249 Md. App. 333, 346, 245 A.3d 201, 209 (2021).Beckwitt filed a petition for a writ of certiorari raising four issues—whether the circuit court lacked subj......
  • Beckwitt v. State, 16-2021
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • 28 January 2022
    ...gross negligence involuntary manslaughter but insufficient to support the conviction for depraved heart murder. See Beckwitt v. State, 249 Md.App. 333, 346, 245 A.3d 201, 209 (2021). Beckwitt filed a petition for a writ of certiorari raising four issues-whether the circuit court lacked subj......
  • Alexander v. State, 500-2021
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 21 March 2022
    ...With respect to appellate review of a trial court's rulings upon objections to closing arguments, we observed in Beckwitt v. State, 249 Md.App. 333, 385 (2021), aff'd on other grounds, __Md.__, No. 16, Sept. Term, 2021, slip op. at 1-3; 2022 WL 260176, *1-2 (filed January 28, 2022): "Where ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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