State appeals in Blake case

Prosecutors seek to use alleged confession

Fatal carjacking in Sept. '02

Judge had said remarks improperly obtained

Anne Arundel

October 15, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

In an all-or-nothing attempt to salvage the case against one of two men charged in the death of a man during a carjacking last fall in Annapolis, a state prosecutor asked Maryland's second-highest court yesterday to reverse a lower court's decision to throw out the alleged confession of the younger suspect.

At issue is whether an Annapolis police officer coaxed Leeander Jerome Blake, now 18, to speak after he asked for a lawyer. Prosecutors have argued that, contrary to a circuit judge's ruling in June, the officer's comment did not amount to interrogation, which must cease when a suspect requests a lawyer.

During yesterday's 30-minute Court of Special Appeals hearing, a lawyer representing Anne Arundel County prosecutors faced frequent interruptions and pointed questioning from judges about Officer Curtis Reese's conduct the morning Blake was arrested last October.

"Does it make any difference whether the officer intended to trick him?" asked Judge Theodore G. Bloom.

Annabelle L. Lisic, an assistant attorney general appearing on behalf of the prosecutors, argued that Blake decided to speak to police because he realized the other suspect had pinned the killing on him, not because of his interaction with Reese.

Blake and another Annapolis resident, Terrence Tolbert, 20, were charged in October last year with first-degree murder in the killing of sailing aficionado Straughan Lee Griffin in the city's historic district. Griffin, 51, was shot in the head and run over with his Jeep Cherokee as his assailants drove away.

In recent months, separate circuit judges have barred crucial statements by Blake and Tolbert, pointing to different Miranda rights violations in each instance.

Prosecutors could have elected to go to trial without the statements, but both cases have scant other evidence. No one witnessed the incident, on a quiet cul-de-sac just steps from the state Capitol, and no weapon has been recovered.

Rather than proceed without the statements, prosecutors appealed both judges' rulings. Because of a Maryland law, the suspects are free during the appeals process, and, if prosecutors lose, charges must be dropped and cannot be refiled.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank. R. Weathersbee has called the appeals "a real gamble."

Yesterday's presentation to a three-judge panel focused on what happened in the holding cell after Blake had told police he didn't want to speak to them without a lawyer.

The lead detective in the investigation, William Johns, handed Blake paperwork that said he was charged with first-degree murder and could face the death penalty. Blake, 17 at the time of the killing, is ineligible for the death penalty because of his age, but officers have said the documents were computer-generated and automatically list the maximum penalty for first-degree murder as death.

Moments after Blake received the documents, Reese walked past the holding cell and said, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?"

Johns testified in May that he overheard Reese's remark, yelled at the officer - reminding him Blake had asked for a lawyer - and pushed him out of the holding cell area. Johns said he reported the incident to his supervisor.

Less than 30 minutes later, Blake asked Johns whether he could give police a statement, according to court testimony. After Johns advised him of his Miranda rights, Blake allegedly made a confession in which he pointed to Tolbert as the shooter.

In the state's appeals brief, prosecutors called the comment "unfortunate, uncalled-for and unnecessary."

Lisic argued yesterday that Reese's remark nonetheless was "off the cuff" and was "simply not coercive interrogation."

But Kenneth W. Ravenell, a Baltimore lawyer representing Blake, contended that the officer's comment was, in effect, interrogation.

"There was no response Reese could have wanted other than one that would incriminate the defendant," he said during the court proceeding yesterday.

Circuit Judge Pamela L. North agreed.

In her June ruling, North said, "Reese had interjected police interrogation into a situation where defendant had invoked his right to counsel."

Although Reese, an eight-year Annapolis Police Department veteran, has denied in court ever making the comment, Blake's defense attorneys, state prosecutors and other Annapolis officers have disputed Reese's testimony.

Annapolis police are conducting an internal review of the incident, but Officer Hal Dalton, a department spokesman, said Reese is on routine patrol duty during the investigation.

In a recent interview, Annapolis Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson said all of his police officers are well-trained and hard-working.

About the appeals, Johnson said, "What happens in court is totally out of our hands."

There is no deadline for the Court of Special Appeals ruling.

A date for oral arguments in the appeal of the suppression of Tolbert's alleged confession has not yet been set. Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled last month that officers should have reminded Tolbert of his Miranda rights after he allegedly admitted to a part in the killing.

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