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Jury to begin deliberations in Annapolis killing

The Baltimore Sun

Federal prosecutors portrayed Leeander Jerome Blake yesterday as a teenager who prowled downtown Annapolis with his friend looking for a victim and then took part in an armed carjacking, killing a man in front of his home.

But the defense lawyer for Blake countered that his alleged confession to police in 2002 is the unreliable result of scare tactics and that he played no role in the 2002 carjacking and killing of Straughan Lee Griffin.

Both sides presented closing arguments yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. A federal grand jury indicted Blake after state prosecutors lost a legal battle that went to the Supreme Court over Blake's alleged confession to police. A jury is scheduled to begin deliberating this morning in the trial, which began June 11.

If convicted of murder and other offenses in the shooting of Griffin, 51, an Annapolis businessman, Blake could receive a sentence of up to life in prison.

"They stalked the streets of Annapolis for a victim," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. Hanlon told jurors. "They found one in Straughan Lee Griffin."

Griffin was killed as he unloaded his gray Jeep Grand Cherokee in front of his home near dusk on Sept. 19, 2002, and was run over by his vehicle as it sped out of his cul-de-sac in the upscale historic district.

"The suggestion that because [Blake] was present he is guilty of the crimes charged is flat wrong," said defense lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell.

Blake's exact role in the crime remains unclear. But prosecutors say that at a minimum, he confessed that he and a neighbor in an Annapolis public housing project were hunting for a robbery target, and that he pointed out Griffin to his friend, who shot Griffin.

Blake, now 22, was 17, and his friend Terrence Tolbert was 19 when Griffin was killed shortly before his fiancee arrived to make wedding plans. Tolbert was convicted in 2005 in Anne Arundel County of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole plus 30 years in prison.

"The bottom line is that night someone was going to die, and because the defendant pointed out Lee Griffin, it was his night," Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Purcell Jr. said in closing remarks.

Prosecutors recalled the testimony of witnesses who said they felt menaced by the youths who they believe approached them minutes before Griffin was killed a block away.

The teenagers sharply turned away from one woman standing alone once her boyfriend called out to her, preventing her from becoming a victim, Purcell said. Blake and Tolbert then focused on a woman across the street, walking with her keys in hand, the prosecutor continued. Only her stop to chat with a shopkeeper - though the youths stood flanking her several yards away for about five minutes - prevented her from being shot, Purcell said.

The two then headed toward Griffin's tiny street, he said.

The witnesses could not positively identify Blake and Tolbert, but described their clothing, and one told police that she felt sorry for one of them because he had only one arm. Tolbert lost an arm in a childhood accident.

Ravenell told jurors that police trampled Blake's rights after they yanked him from his home Oct. 26, 2002, in a predawn arrest. He portrayed Blake as a frightened youth.

After he refused to talk without a lawyer, they showed him charging paperwork that said Tolbert identified him as the shooter, and that erroneously said he could face the death penalty if convicted. Ravenell said a police officer taunted the suspect. Twenty-eight minutes later, Blake asked to speak to the lead detective.

Ravenell said police could have gotten Blake a lawyer, or refused his request, or asked why he changed his mind, but did none of these things.

"They were concerned with getting him to talk," Ravenell said.

In initial statements to police, Blake said he was at the scene of the killing, but that the pair was not looking to rob anyone - and Blake blamed the crime on Tolbert, testimony showed.

After a lie-detector test, Blake said he and Tolbert were looking for a victim, and that he pointed Griffin out, prosecutors said.

Blake's statements have been an issue since his arrest and led to a change in Maryland law. After they were thrown out by state courts, the Supreme Court refused to revive them - hearing arguments but dismissing the state's appeal. Prosecutors had no choice but to drop the case, though they were successful in getting the legislature to amend the law to allow them to pursue homicide cases after losing pretrial


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