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Evidence disputed in boy's starvation death

Justice SystemDeathTrials and ArbitrationHomicideFamines

A Baltimore County judge is considering tossing out evidence seized by police in the search of the Rodgers Forge home of a couple charged with murder in the starvation death of their 2-year-old son.

Attorneys for John J. Griffin and Susan J. Griffin argued yesterday that prosecutors should be prohibited from introducing the evidence at trial -- including blood and several years' worth of e-mails -- because the search warrant was written so broadly that it allowed police to "rummage" through the house without restriction.Circuit Judge Timothy J. Martin said he has "real concerns" about the warrant but wanted to research case law and review the facts before ruling on the defense request to exclude all evidence gathered during the search of the Griffins' home.

John Griffin, 39, and Susan Griffin, 38, are charged with first-degree murder and child abuse in the death Dec. 26 of Andrew Patrick Griffin, who weighed about 13 pounds -- roughly the weight of a typical 3-month-old -- when he died at St. Joseph Medical Center. An autopsy later revealed that the cause of death was starvation.

A decision to exclude evidence from the search would mean that prosecutors could not tell jurors about blood evidence traced to the boy that police found on clothes, walls and the ceiling of the couple's bedroom. It would also prevent prosecutors from using at trial photos and e-mails that investigators found on the family's computer.

"That computer did reveal a lot of information about the goings-on in the house," said Robin S. Coffin, a deputy state's attorney who is handling the case. Asked to elaborate in an interview after the hearing, she said only, "It's a little insight into Susan's mind."

Joseph Murtha, who is representing John Griffin, and Edward T. Barry, an attorney for Susan Griffin, argued in court that the search warrant was too general -- particularly a provision that gave police authority to search for "evidence of a motive" -- and that detectives did not have sufficient proof that a crime had been committed when they sought the warrant from a District Court judge.

"What happened is that, potentially motivated by emotion and sympathy in the death of a 2-year-old, the court issued a general warrant" that allowed the police to look for anything, Murtha said.

Without restrictions on what kind of evidence detectives could seek and seize, Barry told the judge, "the police just went in and took out what they wanted. The entire search was improper."

Coffin disagreed, noting that detectives were investigating the suspicious death of a toddler when they sought the warrant and that searching the child's home for evidence of what might have happened to him was entirely reasonable. Even if there was a problem with the warrant, she added, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that such defects can be overlooked if police act in good faith when seeking the warrant.

Barry, Susan Griffin's attorney, also asked the judge to exclude from trial his client's nine-hour interview with police.

He unsuccessfully argued that the stay-at-home mother, who was suffering from the flu and pregnant with her seventh child at the time of her interrogation, was misled to believe that she would be permitted to return home to her children as soon as she told police what she knew of her son's death.

But the judge ruled that Susan Griffin understood her rights to have a lawyer and to refuse to answer detectives' questions and agreed to speak with them anyway. He noted that she asked hundreds of questions of the detectives during the nine-hour interview. And he found that police made no promises to coerce her into speaking with them -- including saying she could go home if only she would answer their questions.

"She can believe what she believed," Martin said, "but I don't think it came as a result of any actions of the police officers."

He is expected to rule on the admissibility of the search-warrant evidence within a week.

The Griffins' five remaining children have been placed in foster care, with the oldest two assigned to live with John Griffin's mother.

Susan Griffin also has an adult son from a previous relationship.

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