Defense attacks client's statement to police in fatal Annapolis carjacking

The Baltimore Sun

Nearly five years after a brutal slaying in Annapolis' quaint Historic District, Leeander Jerome Blake is facing a federal jury in the fatal carjacking that eluded state prosecution.

Blake is likely to hear his incriminating 2002 statements used against him - remarks that were at the center of a legal dispute in state courts - as well as evidence that prosecutors have said they garnered since the original case in Anne Arundel County.

Prosecutors said in opening statements in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday that Blake, now 22, confessed to pointing the victim out as a robbery target to his friend but denied that he was the shooter. His lawyer said the statement came after Annapolis police scared him in a scenario "right out of Hollywood."

Blake, then 17, was one of two youths charged in the Sept. 19, 2002, death of Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, a partner in a media company killed in front of his home. It was the first slaying in his Annapolis neighborhood in two decades. Shot in the forehead, Griffin was then run over by the Jeep Grand Cherokee he had been unloading moments earlier. As Griffin's family wept yesterday, witnesses described the bullet wound and tire tracks across the victim's chest.

Blake's neighbor, Terrence Tolbert, 19 at the time of the crime, was convicted of murder in 2005 by an Anne Arundel County jury and sentenced to life without parole plus 30 years.

Blake's lawyers contended that their client was improperly questioned and had the statements he made to police thrown out of state court. Maryland prosecutors appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule. Anne Arundel County authorities were forced to drop the case.

Last August, a grand jury indicted Blake on federal charges.

Yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Purcell Jr. told jurors that Blake probably figured that "if I don't pull the trigger, I am not the murderer. That may be what a 17-year-old thinks." But, Purcell said, that's not the law: "The guy who pulls the trigger and the guy who points the finger are equally guilty."

Having failed in March to have Blake's statements thrown out in the federal case, defense lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell described the circumstances to jurors.

He said, "You, the jury, decide if you want to rely on that statement."

Blake was taken in his underwear from home before dawn and put in a holding cell, where he asked for a lawyer. He was shown charging documents that said Tolbert blamed him for the crime, was threatened with the death penalty and a police officer told him, "I bet you want to talk now, huh," Ravenell said. Detective William Johns said to the officer in front of Blake that police could not speak with him, but a half-hour later, Blake asked to talk to Johns.

While the jury is likely to hear from witnesses who helped local prosecutors convict Tolbert - including people who saw Blake and Tolbert near the shooting scene minutes before - Purcell told jurors that in telephone calls, Blake also placed himself with Tolbert after the killing.

The trial was to resume today with a defense request to dismiss the case. Ravenell contends prosecutors did not file the appropriate documents to try Blake, because he was a juvenile when Griffin was killed. U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said the paperwork was not necessary because Blake was an adult when charged.

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