Both the prosecution and defense in court Tuesday played the body-worn camera footage that captured the moments leading up to Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio’s death — but they sparred over what prompted Dawnta Harris to strike her with a vehicle last year in Perry Hall.
Police identified Harris, now 17, as the driver of the black Jeep Wrangler that struck Caprio on May 21 after she responded to Linwen Way for a report of a suspicious vehicle. Harris had been waiting in the vehicle as three other teens burglarized a home in the cul-de-sac, police said.
Harris is the first of the four teens who have been charged with felony murder in her death to be tried in Baltimore County Circuit Court. The other three teens are awaiting trial.
During opening statements Tuesday, jurors watched a portion of Caprio’s body-worn camera footage from that day. She can be heard several times telling Harris to stop and get out of the Jeep. The footage also showed her gun drawn before the Jeep accelerates forward and strikes her. Caprio fired one shot before she was struck. After falling, she could be heard moaning as panicked residents tried to help. The footage showed Caprio’s blood pooling on the street.
“Stop, stop. Get out of the car,” assistant state’s attorney Zarena Sita said to jurors, quoting Caprio. “Those were her last words.”
Caprio gave Harris eight chances to get out of the vehicle, she said.
Hitting her with the Jeep “was his choice. He didn’t have to do that,” Sita told jurors.
But Harris’ attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, urged jurors in his opening remarks to “clear their minds” of the emotional video and focus on the facts. He told jurors to remember that Caprio was initially called to the scene for a suspicious vehicle, and he questioned why the officer drew her gun as she got out of her police vehicle and attempted to pull Harris over.
“Why are you pulling your weapon and pointing it in somebody’s face?” Gordon asked. He said his client was then given commands in “rapid succession.”
“How would you all perform?” he asked jurors, saying his client, who was 16 at the time, panicked as a gun was pointed at him.
During the encounter, Caprio was standing behind her police cruiser when Harris ducked and accelerated the Jeep to get away, Gordon said. He noted that Caprio managed to fire a shot, which pierced the Jeep’s windshield.
Caprio, a nearly four-year veteran of the department, died at a hospital a short time later.
“The bottom line, the very last time Dawnta saw Officer Caprio, she was standing behind her vehicle,” Gordon said. “You got a 16-year-old not really understanding how to respond to a gun being pointed in his face” and an officer who put herself in the path of a moving vehicle, he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “this was an accident.”
During Tuesday’s testimony, Harris, a slender teen who wore a dark button-down shirt and a short-cropped haircut, kept his head down. Behind him, the courtroom was packed with media, members of the police department and others. His mother and father also attended the trial Tuesday, as did Caprio’s mother, who sat behind the prosecutors’ trial table.
Kirsten Roller, who lived in the area, testified about how she first noticed the Jeep in the block and saw one of the teens peering into the front entryway windows of one neighbor’s home. Roller said she contacted her neighbors who said they did not have any planned visitors. Roller said she then saw three teens go to the back of the house and she called 911. She called again when she saw someone push back curtains in a second-story bedroom.
Roller then recalled how she saw the Jeep leave the street and then return as Caprio approached the cul-de-sac. The officer got out of her car and the Jeep appeared to drive toward her, Roller said, but then it stopped and the door opened. Roller remained on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. She said she feared the officer would get hit by the Jeep until she saw it stopped.
“That’s when you hear me say, ‘They’re going to run her over,’” Roller said after prosecutors played recordings of her 911 calls for jurors.
But after the Jeep stopped, the door closed and she saw no one get out, Roller said, she saw the shot fired as Caprio was struck by the Jeep. Roller said she was the first of the neighbors to run out to the street where Caprio was lying with tire marks on her legs and blood pooling around her head.
“I can’t get her face out of my head,” she said.
Christopher Squires, another resident from the neighborhood, told jurors he saw the Jeep and watched Harris walk away from it. He would later identify Harris to police officers as the young man he saw leaving the damaged Jeep.
An officer testified that he was one of many officers who quickly rushed to the scene after “Signal 13” was issued, which means backup is needed for an officer emergency. As the officer responded to the block, he spotted Harris walking nearby and his description was similar to the suspect description given to officers.
Harris was placed in handcuffs at the scene and later taken into custody.
The trial is expected to continue for the rest of the week. Jurors are expected to see Harris’ videotaped interview with police and other evidence.