Appeals in fatal carjacking are heard


Lawyers for two men accused in a fatal carjacking in Annapolis' Historic District asked Maryland's highest court yesterday to prevent their alleged confessions from being used against them in court.

Prosecutors must win at the Court of Appeals in order to take Leeander Jerome Blake and Terrence Tolbert to trial on charges that they killed Straughan Lee Griffin as he unloaded groceries outside his home in September 2002. By law, the cases must be dismissed if the defense succeeds.

Defense lawyers argued that Blake and Tolbert were illegally questioned when they reportedly implicated each other in the slaying of the 51-year-old businessman.

Blake's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, told the judges that Annapolis police Officer Curtis Reese violated his client's rights by telling him, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" after the teen-ager had invoked his rights to remain silent and talk to a lawyer.

Ravenell asked the high court to consider the setting - "a 17-year-old in a cold cell in his underwear" - and the paperwork presented to Blake - which said he'd been charged with murder and which erroneously said the death penalty was a possibility.

But Assistant Attorney General Annabelle L. Lisic disagreed. She said the lead detective in the case, William Johns, immediately and loudly reprimanded Reese in front of Blake, which negated the impact of Reese's remark and underscored to Blake that he didn't have to talk.

Less than a half-hour later, Blake asked Johns if he could still speak to him. Lisic contended that showed that "clearly Detective Johns made an impression on him."

Blake, now 18, and Tolbert, now 21, are charged with first-degree murder in Griffin's Sept. 19, 2002, carjacking and killing. Just before dusk, in the shadow of the State House, Griffin was shot in the head and robbed of the keys to his Jeep. His attackers stole the Grand Cherokee, and, as Griffin lay in the street, ran over him.

Blake and Tolbert, neighbors in the Robinwood public housing complex in Annapolis, were arrested about a month later. In separate statements to police, they blamed each other, with police saying Tolbert described the crime as a "robbery gone bad."

Ravenell said although he had "suspicions," there was no evidence that police had crafted a plot to get Blake to talk.

But most of the judges' questions focused on Blake's computer-generated charging form that incorrectly stated the juvenile would be eligible for the death penalty, and on what Johns could have done to counter the effect of Reese's pointed remark to the youth.

Reese resigned late last year from the police force, amid an internal probe into the remark that he denied making to Blake.

Tolbert's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender William E. Nolan, argued that Tolbert should have been read his Miranda warnings twice, first as he was about to take a lie-detector test and then after he made incriminating remarks.

Maryland State Police Cpl. Lloyd Edward White Jr. read Tolbert his Miranda rights before the lie-detector test. But Nolan argued that because Tolbert was not free to leave after implicating himself, his subsequent statement should be thrown out because he wasn't read his Miranda rights a second time.

But at least two of the Court of Appeals judges seemed skeptical of that argument.

Arundel rulings

In separate rulings, Anne Arundel County Circuit judges found last year that city police violated Blake's and Tolbert's rights in questioning them.

The rulings seemed to eliminate the best evidence for prosecutors, who lack a weapon or witnesses to bolster cases that defense lawyers say are bone-thin.

Prosecutors appealed the rulings under a state law that freed the defendants pending the outcome of the appeals. That same law has also provided an extraordinary penalty for prosecutors if they lose their appeals: The cases must be forever dismissed.

Prosecutors persuaded the Court of Special Appeals to reverse the judge's ruling in the case of Blake, so his attorneys appealed to the high court.

Exactly when the Court of Appeals will decide the cases is unclear. Lisic said she believes that the court must rule on Tolbert by March 16 - 120 days from when the case moved to the Court of Special Appeals. That's because the high court took the Tolbert case before the midlevel appeals court could hear it.

No similar deadline would hold for Blake's case because this is his appeal.

'We had to be here'

The victim's mother, Virginia Griffin, and sister, Linda Griffin, traveled from their homes in the Hampton Roads, Va., area to observe yesterday's legal arguments. They sat with Ginny Rawls of Arlington, Va., the victim's fiancee, as well as several friends and neighbors of his from Annapolis.

"We just felt that we had to be here," Virginia Griffin said.

"We are just hoping for a fair decision," Rawls added.

They will accompany Griffin's sister today as she urges a legislative committee to change the law that automatically freed Blake and Tolbert as prosecutors appealed - and will cost them the cases if they lose.

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