2 men back off on gun remarks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two witnesses in the first-degree murder trial of Terrence Tolbert backed away yesterday from their prior testimony linking him to a handgun about the time that an Annapolis man was shot at point-blank range in front of his Historic District home.

The witnesses, who are twin brothers, said they barely recalled their statements to a grand jury in the carjacking-killing of Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, in 2002.

Their testimony provided a bumpy second day for prosecutors in the Anne Arundel County trial of Tolbert, 21. Prosecutors have not said the gun was the murder weapon.

Tolbert faces the possibility of life in prison without parole if convicted of first-degree murder in the Sept. 19, 2002, death of Lee Griffin, 51, a partner in a Columbia business that did large-screen projections for rock concerts. The victim was shot and robbed, then run over with his own Jeep by fleeing carjackers.

Tolbert, who lost his right arm in a power transformer accident as a youth, has maintained he is innocent.

The brothers, Jeffrey and Jonathan Griffin, 22, of Glen Burnie - and no relation to the victim - were reluctant witnesses for the prosecution and remain under subpoena.

Jeffrey Griffin denied giving a gun to Tolbert more than two years ago as well as getting the .38-caliber revolver back, despite Assistant State's Attorney Pamela K. Alban's prodding. She showed him his grand jury transcript and reminded him that he had said that Tolbert asked him for a gun and, sometime later, came to his door with another man and returned it.

Jonathan Griffin told jurors yesterday that his brother did not ask him to get rid of the revolver. Alban then read aloud his grand jury testimony.

"My brother woke me up one morning and asked me if I could get rid of a gun for him, could I sell it, and I said yes," Alban said Jonathan Griffin testified.

But the witness said he did not remember saying that. He recalled his grand jury appearance, he said, "but I recall me being under of influence of alcohol at the time, too, so I don't recall anything, pretty much."

More than a month after the victim, Lee Griffin, was killed as he unloaded packages in front of his home before a planned long weekend with his fiancee, Tolbert and a friend were arrested.

According to authorities, Tolbert and Leeander Blake, who were neighbors in an Annapolis public housing project, implicated each other.

Prosecutors contend that it doesn't matter whether Tolbert, then 19, or Blake, then 17, pulled the trigger barely six inches from the victim's face or which one was at the steering wheel when they drove over the man and left him dying in his narrow cul-de-sac in the upscale neighborhood. Both, prosecutors say, were involved in what Tolbert reportedly told police was a "robbery gone bad."

But this week, Mark A. Van Bavel, Tolbert's lawyer, called the crime a "wholly unplanned stupid spontaneous act by Leeander Blake," who was then Tolbert's neighbor in an Annapolis public housing community.

Blake, who faced identical charges, was freed last year after his attorney successfully argued that police violated his rights by eliciting statements from him after he had asked for a lawyer. Short of action by the U.S. Supreme Court, Blake cannot be tried in state court.

Some of Tolbert's statements to police were thrown out initially but were reinstated by Maryland's highest court.

Also yesterday, an Annapolis emergency medical worker told jurors that Lee Griffin endured such severe injuries that he probably was dead by the time paramedics began working on him.

Paramedic Morris Francois' graphic descriptions clearly upset the victim's family and friends, and had jurors shifting in their seats.

"He wasn't breathing. He did have a pulse. ... It was a minute, minute and a half, before it disappeared," Francois said.

Testimony will continue Tuesday before Judge Ronald A. Silkworth.

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