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Attorneys say Baltimore County officer showed 'aggression,' accused teen was in 'survival mode'

Attorneys for the teenager accused of running over and killing Baltimore County police Officer Amy S. Caprio called for the public release of body camera footage from the incident, saying their client was in “survival mode” when he ran over the officer.

J. Wyndal Gordon and Warren Brown, two prominent Baltimore defense attorneys who are representing 16-year-old Dawnta Harris, said Thursday morning that the footage will help answer questions surrounding Caprio’s death, and ultimately help their client’s case. They called on Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger to release the video.

“I think it will put a lot of misconceptions to rest,” Brown said at a news conference at Gordon’s downtown office.

Harris is charged with first-degree murder; police say he struck Caprio with a stolen Jeep Wrangler Monday afternoon in Perry Hall. He is one of four teens charged as adults in her death.

Caprio, 29, had responded to a report of a suspcious vehicle and people walking around homes on Linwen Way, according to charging documents. She came upon Harris, who was waiting in the Jeep while three other boys burglarized a home, police said. Caprio pursued Harris as he drove to the end of the cul-de-sac, police said, and Caprio then got out of her patrol car, drew her gun and ordered Harris out.

Harris partially opened his door, but then shut it and drove at Caprio as she opened fire, according to police and prosecutors.

Caprio, a nearly four-year veteran of the police department, was later pronounced dead at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center.

Harris was apprehended not far from the scene on Monday after a 911 caller reported seeing the Jeep, which had been abandoned. Police say Harris later identified the other three teens, who were arrested Tuesday morning in Baltimore.

Gordon said he wants to know why Caprio demonstrated “aggression” toward Harris and why she drew her weapon during what “amounted to a traffic stop.” Gordon said his client couldn’t see where he was going when he ducked as Caprio fired her gun, and he hit the gas.

“If someone's got bullets whizzing by your head, you’re in survival mode, you’re trying to survive,” Gordon said. “This was not an intentional killing. … This was an accident.”

He said both Caprio and Harris had to make split-second decisions.

“He ducked and he closed his eyes and the car started moving forward, and the only reason you duck is because bullets are coming towards you,” Gordon said.

Eugene Robert Genius IV, 17, Derrick Eugene Matthews, 16, and Darrell Jaymar Ward, 15, also were charged with first-degree murder and first-degree burglary in Caprio’s killing.

All four teens are being held without bail at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson.

Shellenberger said Thursday his office would not publicly release Caprio’s body camera video footage before the teens are tried.

“It’s my position that in order to protect the defendants’ right to a fair jury trial, then that should not happen, so we are not releasing the video,” he said, adding that he also would not permit any member of the media to view the video.

In the past, Shellenberger’s office has allowed members of the media to view body camera footage for some cases without releasing the video to the media for public broadcasting.

“It’s important that we completely preserve the jury pool,” Shellenberger said. “I think any release, or any description of the video could taint that. We want to make sure we preserve their right to a fair trial.”

Gordon said he didn’t think video footage would sway the jury because the case is already so public.

“Baltimore County jurors are smart, we learned that,” Gordon said. “We learned that in the Korryn Gaines case. There was a lot of video going on, a lot of video that had been shown to the public. But the folks in Baltimore County can disabuse themselves of what they knew or what they thought they’d known and judge a case based upon the law and the evidence.”

Gordon represented the mother, daughter and estate of Gaines, who was shot and killed by a Baltimore County police officer during a standoff in 2016. In that case, a jury awarded the Gaines family $37 million after it found the actions of the officer who fired the shots that killed Gaines and injured her son were not reasonable and therefore violated their civil rights under state and federal statutes. The county is appealing that award.

Baltimore County began equipping officers with body cameras in July 2016, but the police department has rarely released body camera footage from police-involved shootings when the investigation remained open or when county prosecutors have told them the footage is evidence in forthcoming trials.

In January 2017, Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan released body camera footage when an officer fatally shot a 59-year-old Overlea man, who police said threatened his family and raised a “powerful scoped rifle” as an officer talked to him. The department released that footage quickly because the case did not result in charges against a suspect who faced trial, a spokeswoman said.

Harris’ mother, Tanika Wilson, joined Gordon and Brown at Thursday’s news conference. She said that before her son was arrested for car theft in December, he was a typical teenager. But after a series of arrests, she said, she asked the juvenile system to detain him instead of releasing him on home detention because “it was a cycle.”

“Things took a wrong turn once he first got arrested,” Wilson said. “I never had an issue with the police with him. He did teenager things — all teenagers do — but the arrests started in December.”

Harris had a strained relationship with his mother, caseworkers wrote in court records obtained by The Baltimore Sun. She told the workers she suspected he was using marijuana and pills, but he wasn’t tested for drugs, according to the records.

When Harris went missing from his house arrest May 14, Wilson said, she went door-to-door looking for him.

“If they would have kept him, we wouldn't be here,” Wilson said.

She broke down crying during the news conference, saying the system failed her son. She sees his mugshot everywhere now.

Wilson apologized for Harris’ actions and sent condolences to Caprio’s family.

“I really am truly sorry for this,” she said. “If I could have just found my son, she would still be here and my son would be here with me.”

On Thursday afternoon, several hundred people, including uniformed police officers and public officials, lined up at Schimunek Funeral Home in Nottingham to pay their respects to Caprio.

Her funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Mountain Christian Church in Fallston, followed by a burial at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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