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Carjacking trial to start in U.S. court

The Baltimore Sun

In the violent death of an Annapolis man almost five years ago, federal prosecutors now see a tragic tale of two cities.

The victim, Straughan Lee Griffin, was 51 on Sept. 19, 2002, when he was carjacked and shot to death in the state capital's upscale historic district. A successful partner in a Columbia media company, Griffin is described in court papers as a "much loved member of the Annapolis civic community, a sportsman and an avid sailor" living on a quiet cul-de-sac around a community garden.

Set to stand trial today in U.S. District Court, one of the men accused of killing him came from a place much less well-to-do, according to prosecutors.

Known to be an occasional street-level drug dealer, Leeander Blake "lived on Tyler Avenue in Robinwood, a known high-crime section of Annapolis, which consists mainly of low-income housing," Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Purcell Jr. wrote in court papers.

According to Blake's attorney, that characterization could threaten the jury's ability to decide the fate of his 22-year-old client based solely on the evidence and testimony presented during trial.

"I'm very concerned about the language that has been used so far, emphasizing the difference between socioeconomic levels," defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell said in an interview. "That could have a detrimental effect on whether [Blake] can receive a fair trial."

A spokeswoman for the Maryland U.S. attorney's office said Friday that prosecutors did not want to comment about the case before trial. Jury selection was scheduled to begin today, followed by opening statements. The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

At an evidence hearing in the spring, the presiding judge cautioned attorneys on both sides to tone down their language.

"I should say I have been less than impressed with counsel's excessive ad hominem denunciation of one another's presentations, and I'm not appreciative of the implications in the defendant's briefing that overexposure to the background facts ... [is] likely to disable my ability to impartially and without bias decide the issues," U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said at the March 12 hearing.

Almost five years ago, the case shocked many in a neighborhood more accustomed to wandering tourists than brutal murders in twilight. Griffin was unloading groceries on the secluded, picturesque street when his attackers shot him, stole his sport utility vehicle and ran him over as they fled, according to authorities.

Griffin's dark gray 2000 Jeep Cherokee was found abandoned at an apartment complex on Raindrop Court in Glen Burnie, police said. His death - the first homicide in two decades in the historic district - was front-page news.

But the criminal case soon turned into a long, tortured legal journey for authorities and Griffin's loved ones, a legal battle that received an airing before the U.S. Supreme Court and prompted legislators in Annapolis to change state law.

Blake and Terrence Tolbert, who were living at the Robinwood public housing complex, were charged in state court with Griffin's death.

According to federal prosecutors, Blake admitted that he and Tolbert had gone to the historic district to rob someone and steal a car. He maintained that Tolbert was the shooter and driver. Blake told investigators that he pointed out Griffin, a businessman waiting for his fiancee to arrive, to his friend.

Blake claimed that Annapolis police improperly interrogated him.

He had been read his rights and requested an attorney. But his attorneys argued that he was implicitly threatened by the possibility of the death penalty and that police should not have approached him again with questions after he asked for his legal counsel.

In a 2003 ruling, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela North agreed.

County prosecutors then gambled on a pretrial appeal. Under state law at the time, if they were unsuccessful, the case would be dismissed.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal but did not rule, a move that essentially ended the state case.

The limits placed on prosecutors in the case so concerned the Maryland General Assembly that state law was changed.

Federal prosecutors revived the case in 2006, and they passed a critical test in March when Nickerson allowed as evidence Blake's confession to police - essentially reversing the decision that had thwarted state prosecutors.

New evidence gathered since the original state prosecution, federal prosecutors say, will bolster their case - particularly additional accounts from witnesses that place Blake near the scene of the crime, including a shopkeeper and neighbor who say they believed that Blake intended to rob them.

Other supporting evidence includes statements Blake allegedly made to his mother, brother and former girlfriend about what transpired later on the day that Griffin was shot in the head at point-blank range.

Prosecutors do not have a theory on which man was the shooter, Purcell said. Tolbert, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on state murder charges, is scheduled to be a witness at the federal trial next week.

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