Trial in killing, carjacking in Annapolis to begin today

THE BALTIMORE SUN

More than two years after an Annapolis businessman was shot in front of his Historic District home and run over by carjackers fleeing in his Jeep, the murder trial of one of two men suspected of the killing is scheduled to start tomorrow with jury selection.

Terrence Tolbert, 21, faces the possibility of life without parole if convicted of what police say he termed a "robbery gone bad" -- the killing Sept. 19, 2002, of Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, a crime that terrified the quiet, tony neighborhood near the State House.

Exactly what happened as Griffin unloaded groceries early that evening might not be sorted out in the trial, which is expected to last a week in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

The two charged, Tolbert and Leeander Jerome Blake, then teenage neighbors in an Annapolis housing project, blamed each other, starting two cases notable for twists and a change in state law. Tolbert has maintained his innocence.

Beginning tomorrow, a pool of 125 potential jurors will be winnowed to a panel of 12 plus three alternates for Tolbert's trial before Judge Ronald A. Silkworth. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, Blake will not be tried on state charges.

Virginia Griffin, mother of the victim, said she does not expect the trial, which she will attend with her daughter, to reveal who killed her son.

"I don't think it makes any difference which one did it," she said. "They did it together."

"For the family's peace of mind, that is a horrible thing not to know," said former prosecutor William C. Mulford II, now in private practice. "From a legal standpoint, it may not really matter."

The reason, he said, is that if prosecutors can show that Tolbert took part in the robbery or its planning and that the crime led to Griffin's death, he could be considered guilty of murder.

Being present is not enough for a conviction in many circumstances, said defense lawyer Carroll McCabe. That is the position Tolbert's attorney is taking.

"His position is that he did not participate or even know what Leeander was going to do," Mark Van Bavel, Tolbert's attorney, said yesterday.

Investigators from the Annapolis police and Maryland State Police are expected to testify that Tolbert said he and Blake had been smoking PCP and were looking for a ride to Glen Burnie at the time of Griffin's death. Tolbert maintained that he was not the one who had the gun or who drove the Jeep over Griffin and left him dying on the cobblestones.

Van Bavel described that as an admission that Tolbert was at the scene, but police wrote in charging documents that Tolbert "admitted to participating in this offense."

Assistant State's Attorney Frederick Paone recently declined to comment on the case.

The Jeep was recovered a few blocks from Tolbert's girlfriend's home.

The cases have hinged on statements Tolbert and Blake made to police. That brought the Tolbert case to trial, but Blake might never be tried. "If one walks and the other doesn't? That's life," said defense lawyer Gill Cochran.

Tolbert, who lost his right arm in a childhood accident involving a power transformer, was arrested after witnesses said they had seen a one-armed youth near Griffin's home, a few blocks from the State House.

He blamed the crime on Blake, then 17.

Van Bavel said questioning that led to Tolbert's second and third statements to police violated his constitutional rights, arguing that Miranda warnings he was read before he was given a lie detector test were invalid for the two later statements.

He said Tolbert should have been advised of his rights again after taking the test. A circuit judge threw out the statements, but Maryland's top court ruled they should be allowed. The Supreme Court refused a defense request to hear the case.

A day after police charged Tolbert, they arrested Blake. He claimed that police violated his rights by eliciting remarks after he asked for a lawyer.

His argument succeeded in Anne Arundel Circuit Court and failed on appeal in Maryland's second-highest court. The state's highest court then rejected the prosecutors' appeal, apparently ending the case.

That Blake is free has led prosecutors to complain that he can boast about getting away with murder. It also has led to moves to change the law that requires defendants to be freed when prosecutors appealed an unfavorable pretrial ruling.

Many in Annapolis were outraged when Blake and Tolbert were released from jail while the prosecution's appeals were pending. Last year, state legislators changed the law to leave decisions about incarceration and bail up to the judge.

Efforts to change a second part of the law failed last year, and proponents have vowed to try again in the coming General Assembly session. That section says that if prosecutors lose their pretrial appeals, charges must be dropped.

Blake's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, said Blake, who remains free, has not been subpoenaed by either side in the Tolbert case.

The state attorney general's office asked the Supreme Court to take up the issue of Blake's remarks to police.

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