A teen-ager who prosecutors say admitted being involved in a chilling carjacking-slaying in the heart of Annapolis' historic district apparently will not be tried on murder charges because Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that police improperly questioned him after he asked for a lawyer.
In a calculated gamble, prosecutors appealed a judge's ruling barring them from using Leeander Jerome Blake's incriminating statements at trial. Under state law, prosecutors can appeal a judge's pretrial decisions on matters of evidence, but the case must be dismissed if they lose. A lower appeals court sided with prosecutors, but the high court threw out Blake's statements, ending the state's case.
"Mr. Blake gets to walk out of jail and say, 'I got away with murder,'" said an angry Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.
The 18-year-old's statements were the most crucial evidence Anne Arundel County prosecutors had against Blake in the 2002 killing of businessman Straughan Lee Griffin, 51.
"There will be no trial. The state is precluded from trying it. This was a risk they took," said Blake's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell.
Ravenell praised the state's high court for showing "courage in making a very tough decision under very difficult circumstances." Ravenell said Blake, one of two suspects, did not confess to the killing.
Yesterday's unanimous ruling means Blake could be freed within a few weeks.
"I am not happy with this. It really has messed up everything and changed our concept of justice," said Straughan Griffin, the victim's father.
However, the Maryland attorney general's office may try to revive the case. Because the opinion centers on constitutional issues, the attorney general can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether Blake's statements are admissible. Kathryn G. Graeff, chief of the criminal appeals division, said the office may do this.
Another possibility is asking the state court to reconsider its opinion.
Prosecutors will proceed with their case against the second suspect, 21-year-old Terrence Tolbert, because the high court recently reinstated his statements to police, in which he allegedly said that the shooting was a "robbery gone bad." The two suspects implicated each other, according to prosecutors.
Blake and Tolbert, neighbors in a public housing complex in Annapolis, are accused of shooting Griffin near dusk Sept. 19, 2002, as he unloaded groceries in front of his home near the State House, running over him with his Jeep Grand Cherokee and leaving him to die in the street.
"What [Blake] has always said is that it was Mr. Tolbert who committed this crime," Ravenell said.
In its ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals said Annapolis police violated Blake's constitutional rights by prompting him to speak after he invoked his rights to remain silent and have a lawyer, under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. All suspects are read Miranda warnings that begin, "You have the right to remain silent."
After he was arrested before dawn Oct. 26, 2002, Blake, wearing just underwear, was placed in a holding cell and handed charging documents by Detective William Johns that incorrectly said he faced the possibility of a death sentence, according to court testimony. Because he was 17 then, he was not eligible for the death penalty. But prosecutors argued the documents were computer-generated and referred to the maximum possible penalty for the crime, not to the individual charged.
As Johns started to leave, Officer Curtis Reese confronted Blake and said, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" according to Johns and Blake. Surprised and worried that Reese's question would violate Blake's rights, Johns loudly reprimanded Reese and said police could not talk to Blake, according to court testimony.
Twenty-eight minutes later, Blake asked Johns if he could talk to the investigator and he made a statement, according to Johns and Blake.
"When the charging document was given to petitioner, containing a false statement of the law with respect to the penalty of death, it was accompanied by an officer's statement which served no legitimate purpose other than to encourage petitioner to speak," Judge Irma S. Raker wrote.
That was the equivalent of an interrogation violating Blake's rights, she said.
Reese resigned from the force amid an internal probe.
Last year, separate Circuit Court judges threw out the statements of Blake and Tolbert, leading to the automatic release of both from jail. Prosecutors appealed.
Tolbert was jailed again after he failed to persuade the Court of Appeals to bar his statements to police from trial. He will go on trial in September.
Tolbert was known to many Annapolis residents. As a child, he lost his arm in a power transformer accident, prompting a community effort to help him.
Prosecutors succeeded in getting the Court of Special Appeals to reinstate Blake's statements. Then Blake appealed.
The cases prompted efforts in the just-ended legislative session to change the law that forces the automatic release from jail of a defendant when prosecutors appeal a pretrial ruling on evidence. The law also says that if prosecutors lose that appeal, charges must be dismissed and can never be reinstated, even if new evidence turns up.
Lawmakers agreed this session to change the first part of the law to leave release up to a judge. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to sign it May 26.
Weathersbee hopes the Blake opinion will fuel further attempts to change state law.
"I always wondered why there was such public outrage when they were released. The public outrage should come now, when a defendant walks out of jail knowing he can't be prosecuted and no matter what evidence we accumulate in the future he cannot be prosecuted," he said.
Abraham A. Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and former federal prosecutor, said the Court of Appeals was "absolutely right" in its decision.
"It's pretty clear that once a defendant says he wants to talk to a lawyer, there can be no questioning any time later without a lawyer" unless the defendant changes his mind on his own, he said.
But he said the Supreme Court could use Blake's case to clarify its position on when suspects can change their mind about speaking to police without a lawyer present.
"One of the most powerful principles in applying Miranda is that once the request for counsel is made by a criminal suspect in custody, law enforcement as a team is duty bound to respect it," said Jose B. Anderson, a University of Baltimore law professor and former supervising attorney in the appellate division of the Public Defender's Office.
"Once you have someone in custody you have all the power. All they have to hang onto is that you will get them to their lawyer if they ask. The next person who talks to them has to be the lawyer or else the whole thing falls flat on its face."
Those who knew Griffin are coming to grips with the knowledge that Blake will go free.
"All I would like to say about the ruling is this: I am certainly not thrilled about the decision but Mr. Blake is being given a real second chance here and I sincerely hope that he uses it as an opportunity to change his life in a more positive direction," Ginny Rawls, the victim's fiancee, wrote in an e-mail.
Laura Townsend, a friend of Griffin's, said: "It's very troubling that [Blake] would be coming back on the street. It's certainly a tragedy for people on a personal level, but a tragedy for people in Annapolis, too."