Reviving a troubled Annapolis murder case, the state's highest court said yesterday that prosecutors could use the confession of a man accused in a chilling carjacking-killing in the heart of the city's Historic District.
An Anne Arundel County judge had thrown out prosecutors' crucial evidence, a confession by defendant Terrence Tolbert, 21, in the September 2002 killing of Straughan Lee Griffin. The judge ruled that Tolbert had not been given the proper Miranda warnings.
Lacking a weapon or other key evidence, prosecutors gambled on an appeal, knowing that if they lost, by law Tolbert would have gone free.
The reversal by the Court of Appeals was the latest twist for Tolbert, an Annapolis resident who as an 8-year-old lost an arm to an accidental electrocution near his home. Many in the community rallied around him as he fought to overcome the injury. But Tolbert had his first run-in with police at age 14, followed by a string of charges, some of which were dismissed and one of which was pending when he was charged with murder.
Tolbert faces the prospect of life imprisonment if found guilty; a second man accused in the killing, Leeander Jerome Blake, 18, is in jail awaiting the outcome of an appeal that will determine if he, too, goes to trial.
Yesterday's court order drew deep relief from Griffin's mother, who said she will steel herself for a trial.
"We are just pleased," Virginia Griffin said yesterday from her home in Portsmouth, Va. "I can't say we are happy -- nothing about this makes us happy."
State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said he was happy the high court agreed with his office. He said the speed of the decision -- two days after the appeal was heard -- was important in a case now almost 1 1/2 years old. "We don't want the case to get any more stale than it is," he said. "We want to move this as quickly as possible."
Tolbert has been free pending a decision on the appeal. As soon as the order is sent to Circuit Court, Weathersbee's office will request a hearing to have Tolbert jailed and will seek a trial date.
Mark A. Van Bavel, Tolbert's lawyer, said he was disappointed in yesterday's order. He said he will ask that Tolbert remain free "because he has not violated the conditions at this point in time, and there is no reason to believe that he will in the future."
Griffin, 51, a businessman, was unloading groceries just before dusk on Sept, 19, 2002, in front of his home in Annapolis when he was shot in the head and robbed of the keys to his Jeep. As he lay bleeding in the street, his fleeing attackers ran him over with the vehicle.
Tolbert and Blake were arrested about a month later, and each spoke with police. Each allegedly incriminated himself and blamed the other.
Tolbert waived his rights to remain silent and speak with an attorney and agreed to a lie-detector test. Afterward, he described the crime to the state police corporal who gave him the test as "a robbery gone bad," police said.
At that point, Tolbert should have been given a second Miranda warning because he was not free to leave, his lawyer argued. Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth agreed and ruled that Tolbert's later statements to a detective couldn't be used at trial -- decisions that prosecutors challenged.
Yesterday's seven-line order sending the case back for trial will be followed by an opinion.
Blake's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, said the order in Tolbert's case has no bearing on Blake's appeal, which also was argued Monday at the Court of Appeals, "because the issues are different."
Blake, who was age 17 when arrested, did not waive his rights to an attorney and did not agree to questioning by police. He was placed in a holding cell and handed paperwork that said he was charged with first-degree murder, eligible for the death penalty and that Tolbert implicated him.
Ravenell argued that an officer's comments to Blake while he was in custody amounted to illegal interrogation. Circuit Judge Pamela L. North agreed. Prosecutors appealed and won in the intermediate appeals court, but Blake has appealed the decision.
The Griffin case spurred three bills awaiting action in the House Judiciary Committee that would allow a judge to decide whether to release a defendant and allow prosecutors to move forward with a trial even if they lose their appeal.
Under current law, prosecutors can appeal if their evidence is excluded before a trial begins. If they do, the defendant is automatically freed while the appeal is pending. But if prosecutors lose, the case is dismissed and the defendant can never be charged in that incident again, even if police develop evidence years later.
On Tuesday -- two blocks from where the killing took place -- Griffin's sister testified in favor of one of the proposed changes in the law.
The bills face stiff opposition from the defense bar and other lawyers, who maintain that defendants would be wrongly punished by waiting in jail for the outcome of a prosecutor's appeal and contend that prosecutors would frivolously appeal if there was no cost to them.