The defense attorney in a federal carjacking-murder case tried yesterday to raise questions in jurors' minds about whether they can rely on the allegedly incriminating statements made by a jailed teenager to Annapolis police in 2002.
Leeander Jerome Blake, now 22, was 17 when arrested in the Sept. 19, 2002, fatal shooting of Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, as the businessman was unloading his Jeep Grand Cherokee in front of his home near the State House in Annapolis. It was the first killing in the historic district in two decades, and the coupling of a point-blank shooting with the dying victim then being run over by his own carjacked vehicle horrified the community.
Jurors at Blake's trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday heard police testify that within a few hours Blake went from declining to speak to a detective to implicating himself. He told police that he and his neighbor had smoked PCP, were looking for someone to rob and that he is the one who pointed out the victim to his friend, who he said killed Griffin, police testified.
But Blake's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, who failed last spring to get those remarks thrown out of federal court as he was able to do in state court, grilled police on Blake abandoning his silence.
Blake, in boxers and a T-shirt in a holding cell, was handed charging documents in which his neighbor in the Robinwood public housing neighborhood, Terrence Tolbert, then 19, blamed the crime on Blake. The paperwork listed the death penalty as the maximum sentence for murder, though as a juvenile Blake could not have been executed. Then a police officer said: "I bet you want to talk now, huh?"
The lead detective in the case admonished the officer in front of Blake, saying Blake had invoked his right to silence. Then, 28 minutes later, Blake asked to speak to Detective William Johns.
Ravenell asked Johns, "You never asked Mr. Blake at any time why he changed his mind, did you?"
"No," replied Johns.
Ravenell also asked if Johns offered to get Blake a lawyer, or if he could have told Blake to wait for one. But Johns noted he had no obligation to do that.
"What the defense lawyer is obviously trying to do, now that the statement is in, is try to show the statement is not reliable," said Abraham Dash, a University of Maryland law professor and former federal prosecutor who has no connection to the case.
The decision by U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson last spring to allow the remarks as evidence, as well as the courtroom testimony during the trial, can be used as the basis for an appeal if Blake is convicted, Dash said. The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals probably would affirm Nickerson's decision, Dash said, setting up another run - this time by the defense - at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Blake's confession to participating in the crime for which Tolbert, his friend, is serving life without parole plus 30 years, was the focus of a legal odyssey in state courts. It ended with prosecutors losing an appeal and being forced to drop the case when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in 2005, but dismissed their appeal. It also led to a change in state law.
A federal grand jury indicted Blake last year on murder and related charges.