Defendant asks high court to disallow his statements

Annapolis murder case hinges on Tolbert's words

September 02, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The trial of an Annapolis man on charges that he and a friend killed a prominent businessman in the city's historic district was put off yesterday until January because the defense has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether prosecutors can use statements they say amount to a confession.

Terrence Tolbert, charged with first-degree murder in the carjacking and fatal shooting of 51-year-old Straughan Lee Griffin, was to have gone on trial Sept. 21. Instead, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth yesterday set a Jan. 5 date for the trial.

Lawyers said the nation's highest court could decide as early as Sept. 27 whether to hear Tolbert's appeal. At issue are the admissibility of statements that Tolbert made to an Annapolis detective about the killing of Griffin, who was shot as he unloaded groceries outside his home just before dusk Sept. 19, 2002.

Tolbert, then 19, and Leeander Jerome Blake, his then-17-year-old neighbor in an Annapolis public housing community, were charged with first-degree murder. Both challenged the admissibility of their statements to police.

At the state's highest court, prosecutors prevailed in the case of Tolbert, who is jailed while awaiting trial.

But the defense won in Blake's case, and the charges against him were dismissed under a controversial Maryland law that says if prosecutors bring a pretrial appeal and lose, the case must be dropped.

Prosecutors hope to revive the case, however. Kathryn G. Graeff, chief of the criminal appeals division of the state attorney general's office, said that within two weeks she will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether Blake's statements should be ruled admissible.

In Tolbert's case, defense lawyers are hoping to keep his statements out of court, effectively scuttling the case against him.

At a hearing last year, a Maryland State Police corporal testified that Tolbert waived his right to remain silent before taking a lie-detector test. Told the test showed he was lying, Tolbert said he and Blake smoked a PCP-laced cigarette and were looking for a ride to Glen Burnie. But he blamed his friend for shooting Griffin, the corporal testified.

Tolbert then made statements to an Annapolis detective that Silkworth threw out of court because the detective did not again advise Tolbert of his right to remain silent.

William Nolan, an assistant public defender on Tolbert's appeal, contends that Tolbert had to be given his rights a second time because after making allegedly incriminating remarks to police, Tolbert was not free to leave.

Should Tolbert go to trial, lawyers on both sides expect a high-profile case.

Yesterday, Assistant State's Attorney Frederick Paone told Silkworth that Griffin's slaying and what followed generated such public interest and news coverage that 125 potential jurors should be called for Tolbert's trial so that an unbiased jury can be seated.

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