Focus turns to alleged accomplice's fate

Tolbert was convicted, but Blake remains free

January 14, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The first-degree murder conviction this week of Terrence Tolbert for a chilling 2002 carjacking-killing in Annapolis's Historic District has refocused attention on the fate of his alleged accomplice.

While Tolbert, 21, faces the possibility of being sentenced to life in prison without parole, Leeander Jerome Blake, 19, is free and cannot be tried unless the U.S. Supreme Court revives his case.

An Anne Arundel County jury convicted Tolbert late Wednesday of first-degree murder, armed carjacking and related counts in the Sept. 19, 2002, killing of Straughan Lee Griffin as the 51-year-old businessman was unloading his Jeep.

Griffin was shot in the face, his keys were taken, and he was run over by his Jeep as the carjackers fled and left him to die in front of his home near the State House.

Tolbert, then 19, and Blake, then 17, neighbors in the Robinwood public housing complex, were arrested about five weeks later. In statements to police, they blamed each other. Police said Tolbert called the shooting "a robbery gone bad."

As for the different legal outcomes for Tolbert and Blake, experts say that is the way the law works.

Charged in the same crime, the men raised different pretrial issues as they challenged the admissibility of their statements to police. Tolbert lost in the Maryland courts, and Blake won. Tolbert might never be free; Blake may never be tried.

"Is it fair, or is it the right result in this case? I don't know. What I tell my students is that the American criminal justice system is terrible -- it's just that it is better than any other one," said Byron L. Warnken, who teaches criminal law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Under Maryland state law, if prosecutors lose a pretrial appeal, they forfeit the entire case.

Contending that police wrongly elicited his statement after he had asked for a lawyer, Blake won his fight to have his remarks thrown out. Prosecutors appealed, and the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the ruling barring the alleged confession.

Tolbert challenged his incriminating statements, and some of them were also thrown out. Prosecutors appealed. But he lost in Maryland's highest court, and the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear his case.

On the witness stand Wednesday, Tolbert denied having anything to do with the crime, giving jurors an account that some later said was unbelievable.

Tolbert said he did not know Blake was carrying the revolver he had given him, planned to steal a car or fatally shoot Griffin. He said he fled with Blake, later wiping down the Jeep in Glen Burnie "because I didn't want to have nothing to do with nothing."

The explanation contradicted much of what police testified that he had told them, and prosecutors detailed a series of discrepancies for jurors.

Mark A. Van Bavel, Tolbert's lawyer, said the fact that Blake may not be prosecuted is "not an issue" for Tolbert.

Both Tolbert and Griffin were known in Annapolis -- in different circles, for different reasons.

Tolbert lost his right arm in a transformer accident when he was 8 years old and was the object of an outpouring of community support.

Griffin, a partner in a Columbia business that provides the huge projection screens for rock concerts and other events, was known for generosity to a program for disadvantaged children, as well as for his thoughtful, neighborly ways. He was returning home from work to meet his fiancee for a long weekend getaway when he was killed.

His mother, Virginia Griffin, said the Tolbert verdict offered more heartache because "another mother has lost her son."

Linda Griffin, the victim's sister, said the verdict gave the family its first sigh of relief in the two-year legal rollercoaster, and said they were awaiting word from the Supreme Court in Blake's case.

Prosecutors hold a glimmer of hope that Blake's will be among the rare cases the Supreme Court chooses to review.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, Blake's lawyer, said that he looks forward to the Supreme Court rejecting the state's request. He would not comment on Tolbert's case.

The Supreme Court requested the Maryland court records for Blake's case when it met on the case last Friday.

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