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Bethesda man convicted of manslaughter in tunnel death has sentence reduced

FILE – In this Sept. 5, 2018 file photo, Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, holds a photo of his son in his Silver Springs, Md., home. Maryland's highest court on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, upheld Daniel Beckwitt's conviction on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the fiery death of Askia Khafra, who was helping him dig tunnels for a nuclear bunker under a home. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman, File)

A Montgomery County, Maryland, judge on Tuesday reduced the sentence of a wealthy stock trader convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the fiery death of a man who was helping him dig tunnels under his home.

Daniel Beckwitt was convicted in 2017 for the death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra, who had been hired to dig tunnels beneath Beckwitt’s home in Bethesda.

Beckwitt’s original sentence was nine years, three years of which he’s already served. On Tuesday, the court resentenced Beckwitt to 10 years in prison but suspended five of those years.

That means Beckwitt now has two more years in jail to serve, instead of the six years he originally had left.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer said that Daniel Beckwitt is already statutorily eligible for parole because he has served more than a quarter of his sentence. For that reason, she also sentenced him to five years of supervised probation after his release and ordered him to perform 250 hours of community service.

“I hope this is your opportunity to give back to our community,” she said. “I hope you do what you can do, which is use your intelligence for good.”

In 2017, Beckwitt had invested money in a company Khafra was trying to launch as he helped Beckwitt dig the network of tunnels. Beckwitt reportedly had a fixation on a possible nuclear attack by North Korea.

Prosecutors said Khafra worked in the tunnels for days at a time, eating and sleeping there and urinating and defecating into a bucket that Beckwitt lowered to him. The tunnels had lights, an air circulation system and a heater.

In September 2017, after a defective outlet sparked a fire, firefighters found Khafra’s naked, charred body in the basement of the trash-filled house. Prosecutors said the extreme hoarding conditions in the home prevented Khafra from escaping.

A hole in the concrete basement floor led to a shaft that dropped down 20 feet (6 meters) into tunnels that branched out roughly 200 feet (60 meters) in length. Investigators concluded the blaze was ignited by a defective electrical outlet in the basement.

At the trial, Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said Beckwitt sacrificed safety for secrecy and created “death trap” conditions in the house.

Defense attorney Robert Bonsib told jurors the fire was an accident, not a crime. The lawyer said Beckwitt screamed for help from neighbors and risked his own safety in a failed attempt to rescue his friend.

Beckwitt was sentenced in 2019 to nine years in prison after a jury convicted him of second-degree “depraved heart” murder and involuntary manslaughter.

But a state appeals court overturned the “depraved heart” murder conviction in January 2021, saying Beckwitt’s conduct did not demonstrate “an extreme disregard for human life reasonably likely to cause death.”

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, also upheld Beckwitt’s involuntary manslaughter conviction, kicking the resentencing back to the Montgomery County Circuit Court.

On Tuesday, Beckwitt told the judge he apologizes for bringing Khafra to his home and not keeping him safe.

The judge said she believes that Beckwitt’s “intellectual arrogance” misled him to believe that everything would go as he planned at the house. She expressed sympathy for Khafra’s family and said she understood why his father is frustrated.

“Please do not equate the number of years (in prison) to the value of the victim’s life in this case,” Schweitzer said. “It just can’t happen.”

After the resentencing, Maryland State’s Attorney John McCarthy issued a statement saying, “Our thoughts remain with the Khafra family who continues to grieve the loss of their son, Askia, every day. Today Judge Schweitzer sentenced at the top of the Maryland sentencing guidelines for a manslaughter charge. We respect the sentence and the legal process that brought us here.”

The Associated Press and WTOP’s Dick Uliano contributed to this report.