Evidence law due hearing in House

Measures relate to appeal of dismissed confessions

January 27, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

When the confessions of two suspects in a notorious Annapolis killing were thrown out of court last year, Anne Arundel County prosecutors faced a quandary.

They could appeal, in the hope of having those confessions admitted. But if they lost, the murder charges would have to be dropped entirely - even if prosecutors had other evidence they could use against the defendants.

Now, even as Maryland's highest court prepares to hear appeals involving the two men accused in the killing of Annapolis businessman Straughan Lee Griffin, lawmakers are being asked to overhaul the law that prosecutors say puts them in such a difficult position.

Two bills, sponsored by Anne Arundel County legislators, are set to have their first airing tomorrow in the House Judiciary Committee, where stiff opposition is expected from defense attorneys.

Both bills would expand a law passed two decades ago giving Maryland prosecutors the right to appeal.

In general, prosecutors have no right of appeal. The exception was aimed at evidence deemed so vital that a case would collapse without the material - typically, drug cases that would evaporate if a judge said the drugs would not be allowed as trial evidence.

Two provisions were intended to deter prosecutors from tying up case after case with appeals, lawyers said: release of the defendant pending outcome of the appeal and dismissal of the case if prosecutors lose the appeal.

But prosecutors see those provisions as too restrictive and want them changed.

They were prompted to seek legislation after encountering problems in the first-degree murder cases against Leander Jerome Blake and Terrence Tolbert in the Sept. 19, 2002, killing of Griffin in a neighborhood near the State House.

In a daylight crime that stunned the city's Historic District, Griffin was shot in the head, robbed of his keys and, as he lay dying in front of his home, run over by his Jeep as the killer or killers drove off in it.

Police arrested Tolbert, then 19, and his neighbor, Blake, then 17. Both incriminated themselves to police, and each blamed the other for the slaying. After judges ruled their statements inadmissible and prosecutors appealed, both suspects were released from jail.

Prosecutors consider it draconian that if they lose their appeals, the charges against the defendants must be dismissed and can never be revived.

"If the state loses the appeal they are forever and a day exonerated," said Frank R. Weathersbee, Anne Arundel County state's attorney whose administrator, Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus, is sponsoring one of the bills. "This allows a defendant to say, `Thanks to the legislature, I got away with murder.'"

Weathersbee favors letting prosecutors try cases with remaining evidence if they lose their appeals, saying that forcing prosecutors to make such choices is a wrongheaded policy.

The Maryland State's Attorneys' Association backs the proposed changes, saying they would move Maryland in line with federal law, said Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney and legislative chief of the association.

Laura Townsend, an acquaintance of Griffin, plans to testify for another bill, which would let judges decide whether to release a defendant in the face of a prosecution pretrial appeal. The bill is sponsored by several county legislators.

That bill is intended to address the fear that Townsend recalled when Blake and Tolbert were released. "I live in this community, and no one felt safe," she said.

Others disagree with proposals that would ease the consequences for prosecutors when they choose to appeal.

Leonard R. Stamm, president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association, said the law created an exception to laws that forbid prosecutors to appeal in criminal cases - an exception he said prosecutors seek to widen to other evidence at the expense of people who have not been convicted.

"They want to keep the person locked up even though they say they can't proceed unless the ruling [throwing out the evidence] is overturned," Stamm said. And if the evidence that was ruled inadmissible is not so crucial, prosecutors need not appeal, he said.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., head of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel might be sympathetic to letting a judge decide on release of a person charged with a crime of violence, but less so on the other proposal. "They could have gone on with the trial from the beginning," he said. "They had that opportunity before they appealed."

The Office of the Public Defender also opposes the bills.

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