Family of slain man watches loophole close

Change: New law ends the automatic release of a defendant during an evidence appeal.

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

Two years ago, members of the Griffin family were shocked by the brutal killing of a relative in the Annapolis historic district. Two weeks ago, they endured the disappointment of a court ruling that is likely to free one of the defendants without a trial.

Yesterday, the family of Straughan Lee Griffin took a small measure of comfort from a somber State House ceremony, where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed into a law a measure prompted by the Annapolis businessman's killing.

The change, effective in October, closes a loophole that - for a time - allowed both defendants out of jail while prosecutors fought to have certain evidence allowed at a subsequent trial.

Clutching black pens from the ceremony, a red-eyed Virginia Griffin, the victim's mother, said little as she prepared to leave the State House yesterday. "I think I'd like to just sit in a corner and cry," she said.

The sentiment was echoed by her daughter, Linda Griffin: "I feel sick to my stomach."

The family had come from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia to Annapolis to witness the signing of the measure, which ends the automatic release from jail of a defendant when prosecutors appeal a judge's pretrial ruling excluding evidence.

Last year, family members were stunned to learn that Maryland law forced judges to release the two then-teenagers charged in Griffin's killing while prosecutors challenged a court ruling that the youths' statements to police were inadmissible. Lawmakers moved to change that.

But another section of the law, opposed by prosecutors, remains intact. If prosecutors lose an appeal over evidence, the charges must be dismissed and can never be reinstated - even in light of new evidence. Efforts to change that failed in the House Judiciary Committee, though advocates vow to push for it again next year.

"You're satisfied with a piece of the pie, if you will. It helps, but it is not really the total answer," said Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus, the Anne Arundel Democrat who sponsored the legislation dealing with both aspects of the law at the request of prosecutors. "To say if you lose the appeal, they walk away not just now, but forever, whatever new evidence comes up? That is outrageous."

In the Griffin case, family members are waiting to learn whether prosecutors will seek to revive the fizzled case against one defendant and are steeling their nerves for the other's murder trial this fall.

Yesterday, Virginia Griffin said she, her husband and their daughter decided to drive to Annapolis to witness "the first real positive thing that's happened in this whole series of events." Though the change signed into law by the governor will have no effect on the defendants in her son's case, she said it may spare other families distress in the future.

Otherwise, she said, the city her son came to love - and where he would have celebrated his 53rd birthday Saturday - has lost its charm for her. She said she asked his friends to raise a toast to him this weekend and hopes a charitable group organized by his friends will continue to help troubled children.

Just before dusk Sept. 19, 2002, Straughan Lee Griffin was unloading groceries in front of his home in the tony historic district of Annapolis. He was shot in the head, robbed of the keys to his Jeep Grand Cherokee and run over by the stolen vehicle.

Police charged Terrence Tolbert, then 19, and Leeander Jerome Blake, his 17-year-old neighbor in Annapolis public housing, with murder, carjacking and related crimes. Each blamed the other.

Separate Anne Arundel County judges threw out both teenagers' statements to police, saying the defendants' rights were violated. Prosecutors appealed, setting off the release of the two youths.

The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled against Tolbert in February, and his trial is planned for September. The state's intermediate appeals court, the Court of Special Appeals, ruled against Blake. Jailed while his appeal was pending before the Court of Appeals, he is due to be set free and the case dismissed next month because he won that appeal.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said prosecutors and the Maryland attorney general's office are considering asking the state's highest judges to reconsider its ruling that Blake's statements could not be used. They are also considering asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the Blake case.

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