Homicide victim's sister addresses panel

She seeks House backing for bills giving prosecutors broader appeal powers

Regional

February 11, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Testifying in a building about two blocks from where her brother was killed, the sister of an Annapolis homicide victim tearfully asked members of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday to back a bill expanding prosecutors' ability to appeal when judges exclude the prosecution's evidence before trial.

"I believe there ought to be a balance here, and I believe you all could find it," said Linda Griffin, whose brother Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, was slain in front of his home in the city's Historic District.

A change in the law "will help someone else down the road, some other victim or some other victim's family," the slain businessman's sister said, adding that "we feel that something, maybe something, good can come of his death."

The bill, the last of three proposals introduced in the House in response to the Griffin case, seeks to repeal what prosecutors consider odious provisions in a state law that apply when prosecutors challenge a judge's decision to exclude certain evidence from trial.

Prosecutors want an end to the requirements that automatically free defendants pending the outcome of prosecutors' appeals and that result in dismissed charges if prosecutors lose the appeals.

Griffin was shot in the head and robbed of his car keys Sept. 19, 2002, as he unloaded groceries in front of his home in Annapolis' Historic District. As he lay bleeding in the street, his attackers ran over him with his Jeep as they fled.

Leeander Jerome Blake, 18, and Terrence Tolbert, 21, were charged about a month later. According to police and court records, each incriminated himself and blamed the other in statements to police.

Two Anne Arundel County judges threw out the confessions last year. Prosecutors, left with thin cases, appealed, triggering the release of both Annapolis men. Prosecutors won their appeal in Blake's case, and he was jailed again when he appealed that ruling. Tolbert remains free. The state's highest court heard both cases Monday.

The Griffin bills face stiff opposition from the defense bar; Stanley Janor, a Baltimore assistant public defender also testified yesterday.

This was the first time a member of Griffin's family has spoken out on the issue. As Linda Griffin testified, her mother, Virginia Griffin, and her brother's fiancee, Ginny Rawls, looked on, their eyes red-rimmed.

"When Del. [Theodore J.] Sophocleus called it `the Griffin bill,' that really got me emotionally - that a bill before the Maryland legislature has got my brother's name on it and the only reason is because he was murdered," Linda Griffin said afterward.

She said the outcome of trials for the men charged with killing her brother is immaterial to her, as long as they go to trial.

Prosecutors also testified yesterday, including Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly. He said he once went to trial without a confession, rather than risk having a murder case evaporate because of his appeal. He believes it cost him the case.

But prosecutors faced pointed questioning from attorneys on the committee, some focusing on the wisdom of keeping a defendant jailed for the 120 days while an appeal is pending.

If adopted, the legislation would have no effect on Blake's and Tolbert's cases.

Bills on pretrial rulings

Three bills that seek to change the law for appeals of pretrial rulings by prosecutors await action from the House Judiciary Committee:

HB 34: Would allow a judge to decide whether to jail or release a defendant pending the outcome of a prosecution appeal.

HB 80: Would repeal the requirements that charges be dismissed if prosecutors lose their appeal and that a defendant be released on personal recognizance pending the outcome of the appeal.

HB 304: Would repeal the requirement that charges against the defendant be dismissed if prosecutors lose their appeal and would allow a judge to decide whether to jail or release a defendant pending the outcome of the appeal. Two bills on the same subject are pending in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

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