Appeal proposal draws criticism

Bill to expand options of prosecutors prompted by Annapolis incident

Anne Arundel

January 29, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Legislation that would expand prosecutors' ability to appeal unfavorable rulings came under fire yesterday from opponents who said the proposals would unleash troubling practical problems and undermine the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.

"I think you are on the horns of a dilemma," University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken told the House Judiciary Committee.

A 1982 law lets prosecutors appeal when a judge throws out their vital evidence before a trial.

But it also says that the defendant must go free pending the result of the appeal, and if prosecutors lose the appeal, they forfeit the case.

Prosecutors, prompted by two cases involving an Annapolis killing, seek to widen the law to let a judge decide whether to free a defendant during appeal and to allow a trial to proceed with remaining evidence if prosecutors lose the pretrial appeal.

Warnken said that under the existing law, prosecutors in effect acknowledge that without the evidence that was thrown out, they have no case.

If that evidence is gone, there would be no reason to jail a defendant while the appeal winds through the courts, especially given how few appeals succeed, he said.

Similarly, if prosecutors believe a case hinges on the evidence that has been thrown out, it makes sense to dismiss the case if they lose their appeal, said Warnken.

Proposals to widen the law stem from appeals involving two men charged in the killing of Annapolis businessman Straughan Lee Griffin in September 2002 in the shadow of the State House.

In pretrial hearings, Leander Jerome Blake and Terrence Tolbert successfully challenged their alleged confessions. Anne Arundel County prosecutors appealed, triggering the defendants' releases.

(Tolbert remains free pending a final decision on the appeal involving his case. Prosecutors won their initial appeal in Blake's case, and he is back behind bars.)

Threat to speedy trials

Warnken, who also works for the Maryland Troopers Association and handles criminal defense cases, said expanding the law would represent a shift in the law and increase the number of appeals.

He said the proposed changes also could create issues surrounding a criminal defendant's right to a speedy trial, because appeals can take years.

Stanley Janor, an assistant public defender in Baltimore, opposed giving judges the discretion to keep a defendant locked up pending the prosecution's appeal.

He said if the evidence can't be used in a trial, it should not be used to set bail or a defendant's release terms.

Peculiar law

But prosecutors say the Tolbert and Blake cases demonstrate the law is so peculiar that they believe Maryland is the only state that mandates dismissal of the charges when prosecutors lose an appeal.

Also backing the proposal to allow judges to decide whether to release a defendant were police, judges and friends of Griffin's.

"I find it hard to wonder how you can weigh a few more months in custody against the loss of a life," Laura Townsend of Annapolis, an acquaintance of Griffin, told the committee.

She said the release of Tolbert and Blake has frightened the community.

The bills got a chilly reception from Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a criminal defense lawyer who serves as the powerful head of the Judiciary Committee, which will vote on the measures in coming weeks.

Governor's guests

To illustrate the goals of his administration, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will recognize several guests during the State of the State address he is scheduled to deliver today:

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel and aide Donna Walsh, who will be thanked for their work on a government efficiency study.

George F. Pappas, a Baltimore attorney who headed a technology commission.

Former state Sen. Bernie Fowler, who is known for his environmental work.

Joel Myerberg, who is disabled.

Ron Ricks, a Southwest Airlines executive.

The governor has also set aside seats in the House of Delegates gallery for Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, real estate developers David Cordish and Wayne Gioioso, and former Gilman School coach and political adviser Nick Schloeder, among others.

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