On a warm and sunny day in June, people filed into a courtroom on the seventh floor of the Montgomery County Circuit court. Some pulled chairs behind them, as it was so crowded that there was standing room only.
As the courtroom stood for Judge Margaret Schweitzer’s entrance, moments later, Daniel Beckwitt entered the room. His hair had been freshly cut, it appeared, and slicked down with gel. He wore a green jumpsuit and though not visible, by the sound of it, had his feet in chains.
One by one, family members and friends spoke about how Beckwitt’s actions had robbed them of their loved one.
Askia Khafra’s father, Dia, went first, recounting the moments he’d first learned of his son’s death.
“It was Tuesday, September 12, 2017. An unremarkable day by any standard but one that has been etched indelibly into my psyche,” he said. “That was the day I responded to three police officers at my front door.”
He recalled hoping they were there for a case of mistaken identity.
“In impeccable English … I asked, ‘to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?’” he said, inviting them in.
“Mr. Khafra, we have reason to believe your son was burned to death at a fire in a house in Bethesda,” he recounted the officers telling him. He said he sent up a silent prayer, still, that this was a case of mistaken identity. He said he recalled how his first wife died after giving birth to his older son in Trinidad.
“Here I am again, immersed in another surrealistic experience,” he said, sadly.
Beckwitt pursed his lips, and nodded as Dia Khafra spoke of his dead first wife and the moments he learned of his son’s death.
The elder Khafra said he began to cry and excused himself to the kitchen to compose myself.
“Typically, I would comfort myself with the oft-quoted remark, ‘this too shall pass,’” he explained. But all he could think of was “so this is how it had to end.”
The next months were filled with investigations and the trial, but Dia Khafra spoke about moments in time, when the loss of his son was most painful.
“People often tell us that they can’t imagine what we are going through,” he said. “They are infinitely correct. It is indescribable.”
Askia Khafra’s mother, Claudia, spoke next. Forcefully, she explained she will be forever traumatized by the loss of her only biological son.
“Words cannot explain the emotional trauma I experienced,” she said. “I go to sleep crying, I wake up crying.”
As she spoke, Beckwitt wiped his eyes with a tissue, and Dia Khafra stood to put his arm around her.
She remembered how she would often hear Askia shower in the early hours of the morning, and thank god for the “wonderful gift Askia was for me.” She said she lies awake at night now, during those same hours, but with a different prayer.
“My prayer is now asking God for the strength and the courage to continue living without Askia in our lives,” she said. “So far, this has proven to be an insurmountable task.”
She recalled one evening during the trial she walked out of her home in pouring rain, sobbing, and hoping she would be hit by a truck.
"Since his death, we have been traveling down very dark paths...there were moments I thought I didn't want to live anymore and I actually entertained thoughts of making it happen," she said. "Askia's death has left me broken."
More friends and family testified, and pointed out they had never received an apology from Beckwitt, just a condolence card.
At the end of the sentencing, Beckwitt stood to address the family and judge.
"I am sorry for what happened but sorry doesn't even begin to cover the magnitude of the tragedy," he said. "Sorry is what you say when you bump into someone with a cart at the grocery store."
"If there was something, anything, I could do to bring Askia back, anything, I would jump at the chance," he said. "But there is nothing that can be done at this time."
Beckwitt repeated that he tried to rescue Askia from the fire, and he didn't intend for any of this to happen.
"I will not beg for forgiveness, that is a decision you must deal with on your own," he said. "I just hope that over time you can come to terms with what happened and find peace."
The judge, after watching a slideshow of family photographs of Askia Khafra, said there was nothing they could do to bring justice to Khafra's family and no amount of years behind bars would bring him back.
"All these numbers trivialize the loss of life. Thirty, 20, 15, five ... even life without parole, they trivialize it," she said. "My sentence will not and cannot give you justice. It just can't and it won't."
She then gave Beckwitt 21 years, with all but nine suspended for the death of Askia Khafra, plus five years of supervised probation. That means he will serve nine years, then five additional years on probation.
"It is my opinion that you have what we call intellectual arrogance. You thought that everything would be fine because you were really smart," Schweitzer said. "And you didn't perceive what most of us would consider to be really dangerous."
The judge also issued a no contact order for Beckwitt with the Khafra family.
She said she hoped Beckwitt will use his intelligence for good in the future.
“It is a waste of your talents - I can’t imagine what you could’ve done if you’d considered altruistic needs,” she said. “So it’s my hope that you find a way to use your talents to better our community and have a little bit of that dreamer Askia Khafra in you.”
The defendant's counsel said during the hearing they plan to appeal the judge's decision.