Debbie Byus Sorrells, mother of Baltimore County Officer Amy Caprio, speaks at a candlelight vigil outside Parkville High School to honor the life and sacrifice of the fallen officer. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)
Two city teenagers were sentenced to 30 years in prison Monday for murdering Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio, though they weren’t present at her killing.
They had pleaded guilty under Maryland’s felony murder rule, a legal principle that considers everyone involved in a felony crime that results in a murder to be as responsible as the killer.
Felony murder laws have come under scrutiny around the country — states such as California, Massachusetts and Michigan have scaled back or abolished the laws — and the case of the teens who were burglarizing homes as their getaway driver struck and killed Caprio with a Jeep has brought those calls to Baltimore.
“The underlying issue with felony murder is that it holds people accountable for criminal conduct that they haven’t actually engaged in,” Meadows said. “This is a really clear case of the extreme way in which the rule can operate.”
She argues that the sentence for felony murder should be reduced from life in prison to 40 years. Meadows said there has been preliminary talk about a proposal to change the law in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, whose office prosecuted four teenagers for murdering Caprio, said the longstanding felony murder rule is needed as much now as ever.
“Nobody seems to commit a crime alone anymore,” he said. “This is a perfect example of how it works.”
In May 2018, the four teenagers from Baltimore City drove out to the suburbs of Perry Hall in a stolen Jeep and began to burglarize homes. While three of them were in or behind the houses, one teen, Dawnta Harris, 17, stayed back with the Jeep.
Neighbors had noticed the Jeep and called police. Officer Amy Caprio responded and encountered Harris as he sat behind the wheel on the suburban cul-de-sac. Her body camera captured the deadly encounter. Caprio stood before the Jeep, her hand outstretched and gun drawn, ordering him: “Get out of the car!”
On Monday, a county judge handed down life sentences with all but 30 years suspended for two of them: Derrick Matthews, 17, and Eugene Genius IV, 19, both of East Baltimore. A third, Darrell Ward, 17, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 30.
Shellenberger said the felony murder rule gave prosecutors flexibility to hold all four teens responsible for Caprio’s death, while adjusting their prison terms to their actions.
“You make the adjustment on what people did in the sentence,” he said. “We recognize the different levels of culpability among the four of them. We treated the three in the house in exactly the same way.”
Currently, felony murder carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The law does allow judges the discretion of handing down, say, life with all but 30 years suspended.
Still, Meadows said, the rule is too punitive for young adults. Matthews, Genius and Ward could be serving life in prison had they not accepted plea deals.
“These three teenagers would have gone away to prison for the rest of their lives for a murder they did not commit,” she said. “You have a rule that’s particularly unworkable as applied to juveniles.”
Shellenberger said it would be too lenient to reduce the prison term to equal that of second-degree murder.
“Does anybody really think Harris should have gotten 30 or 40 years, which is what you can get for second?” he said. “That’s inappropriate.”
The felony murder rule has long been a tool for prosecutors to punish getaway drivers, lookouts and accomplices in deadly robberies. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled states may not issue the death penalty for someone convicted of felony murder who did not actually have a hand in the killing. Meanwhile, states such as Kentucky, Massachusetts and Michigan have abolished felony murder.
Today, 42 of 50 states have felony murder laws on the books, said Guyora Binder, a University at Buffalo School of Law professor and leading scholar on felony murder.
“There has been a proliferation of groups and individuals who are advocating for reforming and abolishing felony murder,” he said.
Most recently, the California Legislature passed a bill limiting felony murder to those who intend to kill or act with “reckless indifference to human life.”