BETHESDA, Md. (FOX 5 DC) - The Maryland Court of Appeals is set to hear arguments to overturn the conviction of Daniel Beckwitt, the Bethesda man convicted of murder and manslaughter after a man’s burned body was found in tunnels that were dug underneath his house.
Beckwitt was sentenced to nine years in prison in April 2019 in the death of Askia Khafra, 21. Khafra was found burned to death in September 2017 in a network of tunnels he was hired to dig beneath Beckwitt's home.
Firefighters found Khafra’s naked, charred body in the basement of Beckwitt’s trash-filled house, only a few steps from an exit. Prosecutors said the extreme hoarding conditions in the Bethesda, Maryland, home prevented Khafra from escaping.
According to prosecutors, Khafra met Beckwitt online and invested money in a company Khafra was trying to launch as he helped Beckwitt dig the network of tunnels. Beckwitt was described as a skilled computer hacker who had a paranoid fixation on a possible nuclear attack by North Korea.
Beckwitt took elaborate steps to keep the project a secret and worked to convince Khafra that they were digging the tunnels in Virginia instead of Maryland, even using internet "spoofing" to make it appear they were digging in Virginia.
Prosecutors say Khafra worked in the tunnels for days at a time, eating and sleeping there and urinating and defecating into a bucket that Beckwitt lowered down to him. The tunnels had lights, an air circulation system and a heater. Investigators say the blaze was ignited by a defective electrical outlet in the basement.
Prosecutors argued that Beckwitt ignored obvious signs of danger and sacrificed safety for secrecy.
Beckwitt has been in a prison in Hagerstown since his sentencing. A jury convicted him of depraved-heart murder and involuntary manslaughter. In January, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the murder conviction, but his appeal of the manslaughter charge was denied.
The appeals court panel's ruling says depraved heart murder requires an "extreme indifference to the value of human life," whereas gross negligence involuntary manslaughter requires only "a wanton and reckless disregard for human life."
On Tuesday, the court granted what’s called ‘certiorari,’ in the case, essentially overturning the Maryland Court of Special Appeals’ ruling to deny the appeal on the manslaughter charge.
Beckwitt’s attorney, Megan Coleman, said if the Court of Appeals rules in their favor when it comes to the failure to instruct the jury, Beckwitt would likely be retried, but that if the court rules that there was not sufficient evidence to convict him of murder or involuntary manslaughter, Beckwitt could not be retried and would go free.
She added that the court will likely issue its decision before September next year.
- Deadly Bethesda tunnel fire murder conviction overturned
- New details emerge in case of Bethesda bunker fire
- Bethesda man found guilty in deadly tunnel fire case
- EXCLUSIVE: Photo shows tunnel inside Bethesda home where deadly fire happened
- Bethesda bunker revealed after Beckwitt conviction
- Bethesda millionaire sentenced to 9 years in prison in deadly tunnel fire case