Baltimore County judge denies motions for gag order and suppression of teens' statements in Officer Caprio murder case

A Baltimore County Circuit judge denied separate motions on Monday brought by state and defense attorneys in the case of four teens charged in the death of county police Officer Amy Caprio.

Assistant State’s Attorney Zarena Sita argued in support of a gag order that would have limited defense attorneys and prosecutors from discussing the case with members of the media.

“Obviously, our interest here is to make sure that all of the defendants have a fair trial and believe that the gag order will help to do that. What we’re trying to prevent is any of the attorneys for any of the parties involved the case in the press,” Sita told Judge Jan Marshall Alexander, according to a recorded transcript of the hearing.

Charged are Dawnta Harris, 16, who is accused of fatally striking Caprio with a Jeep on May 21 while his three co-defendants, Darrell Ward, then 15, Derrick E. Matthews, 16, and Eugene Genius IV, then 17, were burglarizing a nearby home in Perry Hall, police said.

All four teenagers were charged as adults with first-degree murder and other counts, and all are being held until trial. State law allows authorities to file murder charges against co-defendants in a crime in which someone is killed.

All four teens are scheduled for trial next year.

The motion for the gag order was filed in response to a Baltimore Sun report of Sept. 28 that included excerpts from interviews two of the defendants had with a homicide detective and the officer’s body camera footage, which were made available to a reporter to review.

Defense attorneys Warren Brown, William R. Buie III and Derrick G. Hamlin said at the hearing that they opposed the gag order, saying it would limit their ability to defend their clients. They said the state held news conferences discussing the case, and that the defense attorneys should be allowed to respond to those allegations and defend their clients in the media.

“I find it very disingenuous for the state to say the defense is somehow tainting the jury pool” after the state had held a news conference after Caprio’s death, Hamlin said in court. He had initially filed a gag order in the case after he said information released by the government “fueled a lot of racism, a lot of the hate speech” against the defendants. Hamlin, who is representing Genius, later withdrew the motion.

James Johnston, a public defender representing Ward, supported a gag order, saying leaked information to the media could taint a jury pool, possibly forcing the case to be tried in an outside jurisdiction.

Alexander said he did not see a need for a gag order “at this time.”

“While this case generated some initial publicity, we are somewhere out from that now,” he said. However, the judge said, “I reserve the right to review this or look at it as the situation calls for.”

The judge also denied defense motions brought by Johnston and Buie, who is representing Matthews. They argued that their clients’ statements made to county homicide detective Al Barton should be suppressed because they were not voluntary.

The Sun previously reviewed portions of the interviews with the teens.

“How did she get killed?” Ward asked Barton. “I didn’t come nowhere near the officer. I straight ran when I see her.”

Matthews told the detective he was not involved in her death.

“It’s not on me,” Matthews told Barton in a separate interview. He says he left the house he and two other teens were burglarizing on Linwen Way and did not see the confrontation between Caprio and Harris.

Police interviews with Genius and Harris were not made available to The Sun.

Buie and Johnston argued that Barton tricked the teens into giving statements to police, and that they could not understand the concept of felony murder, or that they could potentially face adult charges when they spoke to the detective.

Buie said his client, a 16-year-old in the ninth grade, would not know that he could be charged with murder under the state’s felony murder statute. But the detective would have known he would only need to get the teen to say “he was at the house, having something to do with the burglary,” to implicate himself, Buie said.

“It’s really not voluntary. It’s really deception and trickery being used to garner that particular statement, and it’s deception and trickery being used against a juvenile,” he said.

Johnston accused the detective of failing to follow the department’s standard procedures related to instructing persons in custody of their right to see a court commissioner, “a neutral magistrate to tell him of his right to counsel and trial.”

Because that process did not occur, Johnston said, his client was unaware he faced charges in the officer’s death.

But the judge found that the statements were voluntary and denied the motion to suppress them.

“There was no deception, there was no trickery, there was manipulation to induce these individuals to make statements,” Alexander said. There were no arrest warrant filed against the teens, so they couldn’t be seen by a court commissioner at that point, he said.

Deputy State’s Attorney Robin S. Coffin said the teens were well aware of why they were taken to police headquarters in Towson and questioned by homicide detectives.

“Whether or not the defendant understands the nuances of felony murder, he absolutely knew a police officer had been killed,” she said.

The defendant was advised of his rights, she said. “He knew exactly what was going on.”

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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