Trial begins in 2002 carjacking, murder of businessman

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Witnesses on the opening day of an Annapolis man's murder trial described a scene of horror in the city's Historic District the evening businessman Straughan Lee Griffin was killed in a carjack-robbery outside his home.

"I knelt down and I took his hand," Noreen Spector said of her dying neighbor, who lay face-up in the cul-de-sac with blood pooling beneath him. "At one point he sighed, or shuddered. ... I think that's when he died."

Prosecutors say Terrence Tolbert, 21, charged with first-degree murder and seven related counts, was one of two people who killed Griffin and stole his car, running him over with the vehicle as they fled.

Tolbert admitted to police that the killing was a "robbery gone bad," Assistant State's Attorney Frederick M. Paone said in his opening statement in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Prosecutors maintain that Tolbert, who faces the possibility of life in prison without parole if convicted, participated in the crime. "If he aided and abetted in this situation, he is as guilty as the one who did it," Paone said.

Defense lawyer Mark A. Van Bavel blamed the killing on Tolbert's neighbor in an Annapolis public housing community, Leeander Jerome Blake, saying Tolbert was present but had nothing to do with it.

"It was a wholly unplanned, stupid, spontaneous act by Leeander Blake," Van Bavel said in his opening statement.

In early testimony, witnesses gave conflicting descriptions of the clothing worn by two young men seen nearby shortly before Griffin was killed about 7:25 p.m. Sept. 19, 2002.

Only one of five witnesses identified one of the men as Tolbert, who lost his right arm in a childhood power transformer accident. All described one man as taller and thinner than the other. Tolbert is a slender 6 feet, 2 inches tall, and Blake is shorter.

The case has been a legal roller coaster.

Blake, now 19, was freed last year after his lawyer successfully argued that Annapolis police had violated his rights by eliciting statements from him despite his request for an attorney. He is unlikely to stand trial short of Supreme Court action.

Tolbert initially was successful in getting most of his statement thrown out, but Maryland's highest court reinstated it.

Yesterday, prosecutors laid the groundwork for introducing the statements Tolbert made to police, in which he is said to have told them that he and Blake had smoked PCP and wanted a ride to Glen Burnie.

Witnesses described a frightening scene in the neighborhood by the State House.

Griffin's fiancee, Ginny Rawls, buried her face in her hands and sobbed quietly as Elizabeth Butts described the scene outside her window: a dark Jeep leaving with its tires squealing, and a body in the street.

"I saw the car go right over it," said Butts, who called 911.

Her daughter, Lindsey Butts, who lives around the corner, testified that she saw two men and soon after heard a "bang."

Neighbors gave police Griffin's vanity license plate: 1 CMB, and the vehicle was found the next day in the parking lot of an apartment complex near where Tolbert's girlfriend lived. Paone said it was "wiped clean" of possible evidence.

Testimony is to continue today.

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