Maryland’s secretary of juvenile services says the justice system failed in the case of a West Baltimore teen charged with murder in the death this week of a Baltimore County police officer.
Secretary Sam Abed blamed the courts on Wednesday for sending 16-year-old Dawnta Harris home earlier this month as he awaited sentencing for stealing a car, against recommendations from his staff.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Abed said. “It’s preventable.”
Abed said Harris had fled home detention when police say he struck Officer Amy S. Caprio with a stolen Jeep Monday in Perry Hall. Police say Harris and three other youths were burglarizing homes in the area when Caprio arrived.
Baltimore defense attorneys Warren Brown and J. Wyndal Gordon said Wednesday that they would represent Harris.
Brown spoke to Harris Wednesday. He said he didn’t seem to be a hardened criminal.
“You can see a softness in him,” he said.
If convicted of murder, Harris could be sentenced to life in prison. He remains held without bail pending an appearance next month in Baltimore County District Court.
Three other teens were charged Tuesday with felony murder in Caprio’s death. Police say they accompanied Harris to Perry Hall and were burglarizing homes.
Political candidates began to weigh in on the case Wednesday. Jim Shea, a Democratic candidate for governor, said efforts to reform juvenile offenders were failing.
“Governor Hogan and Secretary Abed must answer questions as to how the system failed and how the state will reform its processes to ensure this tragedy is not repeated,” he said in a statement.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby sharply critized Abed. She said he was shirking responsibility for the fact that Harris was loose.
“This incident sheds light on an inherently broken juvenile justice system, which provides a recurring door for troubled youth to graduate to more severe crimes without the opportunity for appropriate rehabilitation,” she said.
Mosby declined to say whether her prosecutors recommended Harris be locked up. She noted juvenile records are protected under state privacy laws.
Defense attorney Ivan Bates, who is challenging Mosby in the June Democratic primary, said her prosecutors could have acted to ensure Harris was off the streets.
The third Democratic candidate in the state's attorney's race, Thiru Vignarajah, said no one has more power to influence the juvenile justice system than the prosecutors.
Abed spoke about Harris in an interview Wednesday. His spokesman said confidentiality no longer applied because details of the teen’s record were revealed publicly in court Tuesday.
In April, Abed said, his staff recommended that a court order Harris held in a secure juvenile facility while he awaited sentencing for stealing a car. Juvenile services caseworkers warned that Harris was a risk to public safety, documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun show.
A Baltimore judge agreed on April 17, documents show, but a judge reversed the decision on May 10 and sent the teen to his apartment in West Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes public housing project with a monitoring bracelet. He was to remain on house arrest to await sentencing.
The Sun could not identify the judge. A spokesman for the courts declined to comment. Juvenile records are sealed from the public. So it remains unclear what caused the courts to send the teen home.
“It wasn’t the right decision,” Abed said. “We had a pattern of behavior here that was unacceptable.”
Harris left his home after four days, records obtained by The Sun show. Abed said his staff tried to call him and went looking for him at home and school. The teen didn’t resurface until Monday.
On Monday afternoon, Caprio was called to investigate a suspicious Jeep on Linwen Way in Perry Hall. A 911 caller had reported that three youths had left the Jeep and broken into a home, police said in charging documents.
Caprio came upon the Jeep and pursued the teen driver down the cul-de-sac, police say. She got out of her patrol car, drew her service weapon and ordered Harris out, police say. The encounter was captured on her body camera.
Brown, Harris’ attorney, said the teen told him that he rode out to Perry Hall with the three other teens, but did not know of plans to burglarize homes.
When Caprio drew her weapon, Brown said, Harris panicked, ducked down and tried to drive off. He was blocked in, Brown said, and tried to drive around Caprio’s car. He struck her with the Jeep.
Police say Caprio opened fire before she was hit.
“He just got in the front and panicked,” Brown said. “If he hadn’t ducked, we’d have a police-involved shooting — it could’ve been him.”
In court Tuesday, prosecutors offered a similar account. They said the teen opened the door as if to get out, then ducked down and accelerated.
Neighbors said they saw the Jeep ram the officer, flinging her body. They said they heard the gunshots and saw her lying in the street.
Harris was arrested near the scene a short time later. The three other youths were arrested later at their homes.
Records obtained by The Sun show that Harris stole a car in Baltimore in December. Records show the teen was charged with stealing a second car in January and a third in February.
Harris was found guilty in March of stealing the first car. Charges in the second and third cases were dismissed.
The court sent him to an unsecure youth shelter in Montgomery County, records show. Prosecutors said in court Tuesday that he left the shelter, stole another car and was arrested.
Baltimore Sun reporters Christina Tkacik and Jonas Shaffer conrtibuted to this article.