Blake found guilty

The Baltimore Sun

Leeander Jerome Blake, an accused killer whose victory at the U.S. Supreme Court ended the state's case and prompted a frustrated local prosecutor to say the young Annapolis man had "gotten away with murder," was convicted yesterday on federal murder and carjacking charges in the 2002 killing of a city businessman just blocks from the State House.

The centerpiece of the successful federal prosecution was Blake's incriminating statement to Annapolis police - remarks that Anne Arundel County prosecutors were barred from using. Blake admitted to police that he and a friend, Terrence Tolbert, were looking to carjack someone - and that he pointed out the victim to Tolbert.

Although Blake's attorneys maintained that he didn't participate in the killing of Straughan Lee Griffin, a federal prosecutor dismissed this claim as "laughable."

"Justice was done," Virginia Griffin, the victim's mother, told reporters. "But we're not happy. Nobody's happy. ... It's been hell. We've been going through this and having motions and hearings and trials for almost five years."

Blake, 22, faces the possibility of a life sentence when he returns Aug. 28 to U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson's courtroom in Baltimore.

Blake's attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, vowed to challenge the verdict.

"I'm not surprised" by the verdict, Ravenell said. "The most important thing for the jury was they accepted and relied upon the statement."

Griffin, 51, a partner in a media company and fixture in Annapolis' sailing community, was fatally shot at point-blank range as he unloaded his gray Jeep Grand Cherokee in front of his Historic District home around dusk on Sept. 19, 2002.

As he lay dying, he was run over by his vehicle as the assailants sped out of his cul-de-sac. Griffin was awaiting the arrival of his fiancee so they could make wedding plans that weekend.

Blake's allegedly incriminating statements to police had been the an issue since his arrest about five weeks after Griffin's death, when local authorities charged him and Tolbert, a neighbor in the Robinwood public housing community, with murder.

Ever since, Blake's lawyer has maintained that police trampled his constitutional rights to obtain the statements.

Blake, then 17, told police and a former girlfriend that he and Tolbert, then 19, were looking for a carjacking target, and that he pointed out Griffin to Tolbert.

"When Leeander Blake finally got his day in court, the jury unanimously found him guilty of the brutal carjacking and murder of Straughan Lee Griffin," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said.

Prosecutors had asked jurors to convict Blake by relying on his alleged confession, despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the slaying - the first in that neighborhood in two decades.

Griffin's mother and sister, who sat misty-eyed with their son's former fiancee and friends through the nearly two-week trial, appeared relieved as they left the courthouse.

"Every trial makes you go back to day one when we first were given word of Lee's murder," Linda Griffin, the victim's sister, told reporters: "I feel very, very sorry for his family, too, because they've lost a son also."

The jury deliberated nearly seven hours yesterday in the trial, which began June 11.

After failing to keep Blake's statements out of the federal trial, the defense unsuccessfully sought a mistrial and dismissal of the case, and then asked jurors to disregard the remarks as coerced.

"We argued this once before in the Supreme Court, and we'll do it again if we need to," Ravenell said.

While Ravenell depicted his client as a scared youth, prosecutors depicted Blake and Tolbert as hunters.

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

Ravenell had argued that although Blake was there, Tolbert was to blame for the crime.

"The suggestion that because he was present he is guilty of the crimes charged is flat wrong," Ravenell said.

The defense lawyer urged jurors to reject Blake's purported confession, claiming that its circumstances were out of a Hollywood movie.

Federal prosecutors argued that as long as Blake participated in the crime, under the law he is guilty, whether or not he fired the fatal shot.

Hanlon told jurors that he didn't know which teenager did it, as each blamed the other.

The inability of Anne Arundel County prosecutors to get Blake's remarks allowed as evidence, despite efforts that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, forced local officials to drop their charges against Blake in 2005.

It led county State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee to claim that Blake was getting away with murder because of a flawed statute that required that the state to end its case when it lost a pre-trial appeal. The law has since been changed by the Maryland General Assembly.

Federal authorities revived the case last year.

In March, they won a key victory: Nickerson allowed the remarks as evidence, giving the U.S. attorney's office the weapon that had eluded local prosecutors.

"Five years is a long time to wait for justice," said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for Weathersbee. "But justice was served today for Lee Griffin."

When he was arrested, Blake refused to talk to Annapolis Detective William Johns without a lawyer. In a holding cell, he was handed charging paperwork, which said Tolbert named him as the shooter. It erroneously said he could be sentenced to death if convicted, though as a juvenile, he could not.

A police officer said, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" and 28 minutes later Blake did, prosecutors said, telling Johns that he was there and blaming the crime on Tolbert. The officer, who quit the department after an internal police investigation of his actions, has denied making the inappropriate remark.

In state courts, Ravenell successfully argued that police violated the constitutional rights of a frightened youth, interrogating him after he asked for a lawyer.

County prosecutors then gambled on a pretrial appeal and lost. The Supreme Court heard arguments in 2005 but did not rule, ending the state's case.

Meanwhile, Tolbert, who had been the subject of an outpouring of community sympathy when he lost an arm in a childhood accident, was convicted of first-degree murder in Anne Arundel County.

Tolbert is serving a sentence of life without parole plus 30 years in prison.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Timeline

Sept. 19, 2002: Straughan Lee Griffin is fatally shot as he unloads his sport utility vehicle in front of his home near the State House in Annapolis. He is run over by the vehicle as it speeds away.

Oct. 26, 2002: Leeander Jerome Blake is arrested and charged with murder, a day after Terrence Tolbert, 19, his neighbor, is charged and blames the crime on him.

June 3, 2003: Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North rules Blake's statements to police about his alleged involvement are inadmissible at trial. The state's highest court upholds her decision.

Nov. 14, 2005: U.S. Supreme Court rejects the prosecution's appeal to allow Blake's statements at trial. According to a state law since changed because of this case, the state has to drop charges - prompting a prosecutor to say Blake had gotten away with murder.

Aug. 31, 2006: Federal grand jury in Baltimore indicts Blake.

March 12, 2007: U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson rules the disputed statements can be used.

June 21, 2007: A federal jury convicts Blake of first-degree murder, carjacking and other charges. Sentencing is scheduled for August; Blake could receive a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Compiled by Andrea F. Siegel

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Find previous coverage at baltimoresun.com/blake

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