Describing a quick and chilling homicide in Annapolis' Historic District, two police officers testified yesterday that murder-carjacking suspect Terrence Tolbert told them that Straughan Lee Griffin had no opportunity to react before he was shot point-blank and run over with his own Jeep in front of his home.
"I said, 'Did Mr. Griffin say anything?' and he said, 'No, he didn't get a chance to say anything,'" Maryland State Police Cpl. Edward White Jr. told Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jurors yesterday, recounting that Tolbert called the Sept. 19, 2002, fatal shooting of Griffin "just a robbery gone bad."
Tolbert said that as he went toward Griffin, who was unloading his vehicle in front of his home, the businessman held up a black or dark shirt and was shot in the face by Tolbert's alleged accomplice, Leeander Jerome Blake, Annapolis Detective William Johns testified.
The two took the victim's keys and drove off, running over Griffin with his vehicle in their rush to leave the cul-de-sac, police said. The men had wanted the Jeep to get to Glen Burnie, police said Tolbert told them.
Tolbert told police that they feared getting caught when a police car, sirens blaring and lights flashing, got behind the Jeep a few blocks away. He said they pulled over, and the police cruiser passed, bound for Cumberland Court, where Griffin lay on the tan bricks, a few blocks from the State House.
Police testified that Tolbert told them that he had the gun earlier that afternoon, but passed it to Blake as the pair walked through Annapolis looking for a car to steal.
Blake drove at first, but as they got into Glen Burnie, Tolbert, who lost his right arm in a childhood accident, drove because he was familiar with the area, Johns said Tolbert told him. They dumped the car near the home of his girlfriend in Glen Burnie, after wiping the interior with a towel they found in the vehicle, Johns testified that Tolbert said.
Blake implicated Tolbert, police have said.
Police accounts of what Tolbert, 21, told them came in the third day of testimony in the trial. If convicted of felony murder, Tolbert could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Crucial to the prosecution's murder case is convincing jurors that Tolbert participated in the crime -- the shooting or the carjacking. The defense has maintained that Tolbert had no role in either, that Blake, 19, his neighbor in an Annapolis public housing complex, acted alone.
Tolbert will take the witness stand in his defense this morning, when he is expected to testify "to refute" police statements, said defense lawyer Mark A. Van Bavel. Tolbert is expected to say that he had no need to steal a car -- he owned two of three family cars, Van Bavel said.
Yesterday, Van Bavel questioned the accuracy of the police statements. He contended that because police didn't tape their questioning or obtain written and signed statements from Tolbert, it was a matter of whether jurors believed their words.
The statements left doubts about who was doing what and Tolbert's involvement, Van Bavel claimed. Police said Tolbert stopped talking before they could pin him down on that information.
Previous testimony has tied Tolbert to a gun. Earlier yesterday, Tolbert's friend Gregory Toney, a reluctant witness, said Tolbert came to him about the time of Griffin's killing with a gun that was "dirty," or used in a shooting, which he and Tolbert took to another acquaintance, Jeffrey Griffin. Griffin told a grand jury that he gave a gun to Tolbert and that it was returned -- testimony he recanted on the witness stand last week.
That Griffin and his brother, Jonathan, said the gun was a revolver is an important point for prosecutors, who brought police in last week to testify that a revolver would not eject a bullet casing -- and that no casings were found around Cumberland Court. No murder weapon was recovered.
Indicted on identical charges, Blake has successfully challenged the admissibility of a statement he made to police and will not stand trial unless the U.S. Supreme Court steps in.