At the urging of Maryland prosecutors, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear the case of a teenager who allegedly implicated himself in a high-profile Annapolis slaying but was not tried because state judges determined he was unfairly questioned by police.
The decision, which experts say could lead to a further honing by the justices of the so-called "Miranda rights" familiar to viewers of police dramas, revives a murder case that seemed all but over.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. asked the high court to intervene after the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out Leeander Jerome Blake's statement to police, ruling that Annapolis police improperly questioned him after he had invoked his right to remain silent and have a lawyer present.
In separate police interviews, Blake, then 17, and a friend reportedly blamed each other in the September 2002 carjacking-killing of Straughan Lee Griffin in the city's historic district.
That Blake was freed last year by the state's highest court and, under a quirk in Maryland law, could not be tried short of action by the Supreme Court, led prosecutors to say Blake might get away with murder -- something his attorney sharply disputes.
Under state law, prosecutors who lose pretrial appeals must drop charges if they are unsuccessful. Maryland lawmakers recently voted to change that law in homicide cases.
Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee called the high court's decision the "beginning of a crucial stage on our road to justice for the murder of Lee Griffin."
"We are thankful that the country's highest court has agreed to our appeal in this matter," Weathersbee said in a statement.
From her Portsmouth, Va., home, Virginia Griffin, the victim's mother, called the Supreme Court's action a "step toward getting Mr. Blake toward trial. He should at least be tried by his peers."
Curran said in a statement that he was pleased to have the opportunity to bring the case to the Supreme Court, which accepts only about 100 cases a year out of more than 7,000 requests. He is asking that Blake's statement to police be allowed.
Blake's lawyer said his client is innocent and he expects to prevail at the high court.
"We believe we are right on the law. We expect the Supreme Court to uphold the decision by the Court of Appeals -- the unanimous decision by the Court of Appeals," said Kenneth W. Ravenell, Blake's attorney.
Curran's request represented prosecutors' last hope to bring Blake to trial on charges that he and a friend, Terrence Tolbert, killed Griffin as the 51-year-old business owner was unloading groceries in front of his home near the State House on Sept. 19, 2002.
After a legal roller coaster over the admissibility of his statements, Tolbert was convicted this year of first-degree murder in the slaying and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Griffin had just taken dry-cleaning out of his Jeep shortly before dusk when two youths approached him. He was shot in the head from inches away. His keys were taken. As the carjackers fled in his Jeep, they ran over him.
About a month later, Blake and Tolbert were arrested.
While in custody, Blake asked to speak with a lawyer. In the lockup, he was handed charging paperwork that said his friend pinned the crime on him and erroneously said he was eligible for the death penalty.
Then an officer told him, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" A detective admonished the officer in front of Blake. A half-hour later, Blake asked to speak with the detective and gave a statement.
But in June 2003, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Pamela L. North excluded Blake's statement, saying that police had trampled upon the teen's rights. Prosecutors gambled on an appeal.
Blake was freed because of a state law that said defendants must be let out when a prosecutor appeals a judge's pretrial ruling. (Legislators later changed that law, too).
That November, the state's second-highest court reversed North's decision and Blake was jailed again. Then his attorney appealed to the state's highest court, which found last June that Blake's statements were inadmissible. Blake has been free ever since.
The question facing the Supreme Court is whether the jailed Blake approached the detective voluntarily in late 2002 -- which is permissible -- or was frightened and prompted into giving a statement.
Legal scholars said the case raises issues that hark back to 1966, when the high court said in Miranda v. Arizona that police had to issue warnings to suspects that begin with "You have the right to remain silent." Ever since then, courts have been interpreting different circumstances of the warning.
In later years, the court ruled that once a person in custody asks for a lawyer, police cannot question him about any criminal matter unless the suspect approaches the police. Nevertheless, in a decision five years ago, the court refused to overrule its famous Miranda ruling.
Legal experts speculated that the court, increasingly dominated by conservatives, took the case to narrow the application of the Miranda warnings.
Yale Kamisar, a law professor at the University of San Diego, said the case could give the court an opportunity to chip away at defendants' rights -- which he called a "distinct possibility. ... I think the court has been reading Miranda narrowly."
Last year, the court allowed as evidence a weapon located only after a suspect who had not been fully advised of his rights told them where it was, he said.
"It would not be surprising if the court reversed," he said. "On the other hand, I still think the Maryland court was right."
Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said he suspects the court's decision to hear the case indicates that at least several justices think Annapolis police did not violate Blake's rights.
"I think they are heading in the direction that makes the strict application of the Miranda doctrine not as necessary by police officers or law enforcement officers," he said.
But Mark A. Graber, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Maryland College Park and at the law school, said this could well be a tough case to overturn on the facts -- the teenager, alone and frightened, read official paperwork that said his friend blamed him and in capital letters said he was charged with a capital offense. Then came the officer's pointed remark.
Said Graber: "It would seem to be a very heavy burden on the state to show that these [circumstances] have no effect."