Officer resigns amid probe

Focus is whether he lied about remark to suspect

Teen said to have confessed

Annapolis

December 10, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

An Annapolis police officer has resigned amid an internal probe into whether he illegally interrogated a teen-ager charged with last fall's carjacking-killing in the city's historic district, department officials said yesterday.

Police investigators were looking into whether Officer Curtis Reese told Leeander Jerome Blake, now 18, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" even though the teen had invoked his right to remain silent and to speak to a lawyer after being arrested in October last year.

Although Reese denied in court making the comment, testimony that he had nearly derailed the state's case against Blake in the killing of local businessman Straughan Lee Griffin, 51. The Court of Appeals will decide Feb. 9 whether Blake's alleged confession can be used in court.

Annapolis Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson said yesterday that Reese was not asked to leave the department and said he was surprised when the eight-year veteran submitted his resignation papers Thursday.

Reese, 35, listed personal reasons as his cause for leaving, Johnson said. Reese could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Johnson said an internal review will continue, but it will focus on necessary policy changes rather than possible misconduct by Reese.

"This won't stop our pursuit to find out what caused this apparent breakdown," Johnson said.

But the resignation allows the Police Department to sidestep tricky issues.

For example, if the internal affairs probe had found that Reese had acted inappropriately, the finding may have bolstered Blake's contention that he was improperly interrogated by police and that his subsequent statements should therefore be excluded from court.

A spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office declined to comment on whether prosecutors were looking into whether Reese lied under oath, but Johnson said it is "highly likely" that they are conducting a criminal investigation.

Latest twist

Reese's departure is the latest twist in a high-profile murder case that has seen both suspects released from jail and has landed two cases on the desk of the state's highest court.

Blake and Terrence Tolbert, 20, neighbors in an Annapolis public housing community, are charged with murder in the Sept. 19, 2002, killing of Griffin.

According to court testimony, both allegedly gave incriminating statements when they were arrested. But when Circuit Court judges ruled that Annapolis police officers had violated their Miranda rights in separate incidents, the statements were thrown out and the men were released from jail.

Tolbert's case centers on whether police should have advised him of his right to remain silent and to retain a lawyer a second time, after he had allegedly implicated himself in the crime. He had been advised of his rights about 90 minutes earlier, before taking a lie-detector test, which he reportedly failed.

In Blake's case, Reese made the disputed comment after the teen had been handed paperwork indicating he could face the death penalty, Annapolis Detective William Johns testified.

Blake had invoked his right to remain silent and had asked to speak to a lawyer, Johns said, making it illegal for police to further interrogate him.

Johns testified that he had ushered Reese out of the holding cell and loudly reprimanded him for possibly violating Blake's rights.

On the witness stand, Reese denied the allegations, but Anne Arundel County prosecutors and a Circuit Court judge said they believed Johns' account.

After hearings last spring, prosecutors appealed the Circuit Court judge's decision to exclude Blake's alleged confession based on Reese's comment. The move triggered Blake's release from jail because of a state law aimed at preventing frivolous appeals.

In October, a Court of Special Appeals three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in favor of prosecutors, allowing them to use the alleged confession in court. Blake was sent back to the Anne Arundel County Detention Center late last month.

In their majority opinion, the two judges agreed that Reese's comment was more of "a blurt" than actual interrogation.

Ruling appealed

Blake's attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell of Baltimore, appealed that ruling to the state's highest court. The Court of Appeals will hear Blake's case - and the state's appeal to use Tolbert's alleged confession - in February.

Prosecutors and the assistant U.S. attorney general handling the Blake appeal said it is unlikely that Reese's resignation will hinder the appeals process.

Ravenell said yesterday that Reese's resignation is further evidence that the Court of Special Appeals erred in its decision.

"This confirms that even Reese feels that his behavior was not appropriate," he said.

Reese, whose patrol included parts of West Street near the State House, worked his last day Nov. 24, according to police spokesman Officer Hal Dalton. He is using accrued leave time until Dec. 18.

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