Appeals court reverses ruling on evidence

Suspect's statement found admissible in Annapolis carjacking-murder case

Prosecution of teen may proceed

Panel says police officer did not violate his rights

October 30, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The state's second-highest court breathed life into a high-profile Annapolis carjacking-murder case yesterday when it ruled that an alleged confession by one of the suspects could be admitted as evidence at trial.

A three-judge panel reversed an Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge's decision to exclude statements made by Leeander Jerome Blake, 18, after he was arrested and charged with the death last year of businessman Straughan Lee Griffin. The panel found that a remark by an Annapolis police officer did not amount to interrogating Blake after he had asked for a lawyer.

Prosecutors had stumbled in recent months as separate Circuit Court judges barred crucial evidence: statements by Blake and a second suspect, Terrence Tolbert, 20, in which they allegedly acknowledged roles in the crime and implicated one another.

Taking an all-or-nothing gamble that led to the release of both young men from jail, prosecutors appealed the judges' rulings. Losing would have meant that they would have to drop charges and could not refile them.

"This is very gratifying," State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said of yesterday's decision. "It gives us hope for not just this one, but for both of our cases."

But prosecutors still face hurdles in securing two convictions.

Although the 2-to-1 Court of Special Appeals opinion issued late yesterday paves the way for Blake to be tried, his lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, said he would "certainly" ask the Court of Appeals to hear the case.

Tolbert's trial also is in limbo. Last month, a judge tossed out part of Tolbert's alleged confession, saying he should have been read his Miranda rights a second time the night he was arrested. Prosecutors also filed an appeal in that case, but a hearing had not been scheduled as of yesterday.

Blake and Tolbert, neighbors in the Robinwood public housing complex in Annapolis, are charged with fatally shooting and running over Griffin, 51, in September last year in front of his home, just steps from the State House.

The Blake appeal hinged on a comment made by Annapolis police Officer Curtis Reese on Oct. 26 last year in a cellblock after the arrested teen-ager had invoked his rights to speak with a lawyer and to remain silent.

Moments after Blake was handed a statement of charges saying he could face the death penalty and detailing that Tolbert had accused him of pulling the trigger, Reese walked by and said, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" according to court testimony.

The case's lead investigator, Detective William Johns, testified that he reprimanded Reese and told him that he may have violated Blake's rights.

Under oath, Reese has denied making the statement, but other police officers, and both the prosecution and defense, contend that he did.

About 30 minutes later, Blake asked Johns if he could still make a statement, at which time he was advised of his Miranda rights again.

In yesterday's Special Appeals Court decision, Judge James R. Eyler called Reese's comment "a blurt."

"[V]iewed objectively it was rhetorical in nature, and there was no actual questioning of [Blake]," the judge wrote.

Blake's lawyer contended - and Circuit Judge Pamela L. North agreed - that Reese's comment constituted interrogation, which would have violated the rights Blake had invoked.

"Judge North's opinion was well-reasoned and correct," Ravenell said. "I'm surprised and disappointed by this decision."

Griffin's parents, who live in Portsmouth, Va., where their son was born and where he is buried, said they are pleased that the case will go forward.

Because of a state law aimed at limiting frivolous appeals, Blake and Tolbert were released from jail when prosecutors decided to appeal the judges' decisions. Blake could return to jail after the Circuit Court receives the mandate from the appeals court to reverse its decision, usually within 30 days of the opinion.

In his dissenting opinion, Special Appeals Judge Theodore J. Bloom acknowledged that it would be "an extremely harsh penalty for the state" to have to drop charges against a person who allegedly had admitted a part in a killing. But he said he believed Reese's comments were tantamount to interrogation.

Dura lex sed lex were the last words of the judge's opinion. It's Latin for "the law is hard, but it is the law."

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