Arundel man sentenced to life without parole

Businessman was killed in '02 Annapolis carjacking

`The pain will always be there'

Second suspect remains free after appeal hearing

February 25, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Ending a 2 1/2 -year legal seesaw, an Anne Arundel County judge yesterday sentenced Terrence Tolbert to life in prison without parole for the carjacking-slaying of an Annapolis businessman outside his Historic District home.

Tolbert, 22, appeared expressionless as Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth told a packed courtroom that just as the victim, Straughan Lee Griffin, epitomized what is right in society, Tolbert embodied what's wrong.

"Mr. Tolbert, one solace to you is that you still will have a life. Mr. Griffin will not," Silkworth said.

Silkworth told Tolbert that he victimized not only Griffin's family and friends, but also the community and his own family.

As the judge meted out life without parole for first-degree murder plus 30 years for conspiracy to commit carjacking, members of Griffin's family sighed, then wept. Later, they said they were pleased that Silkworth held Tolbert responsible, but felt sadness for his family.

"There is no closure. The pain will always be there," said Virginia Griffin, mother of the 51-year-old victim.

"He still took the life of someone I love. I can't forgive that action," said Ginny Rawls, Griffin's fiancee.

Mark A. Van Bavel, Tolbert's lawyer, said he was disappointed with the sentence. "But I understand why he did it," added Van Bavel, who sought a term of life with the possibility of parole.

The fate of the second suspect, Tolbert's neighbor, remains uncertain. Leeander Jerome Blake, 19, was also charged in Griffin's killing, but he successfully challenged the admissibility of his statement to police. This effectively ended the case barring action by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Griffin, a partner in a business that handled large-screen projections for rock concerts and other events, had just taken dry-cleaning out of his Jeep shortly before dusk on Sept. 19, 2002, when two youths approached him. He was shot in the head from inches away. His keys were taken.

As the carjackers fled in his Jeep, they ran over him, leaving him dying in a pool of blood. His vehicle was found near Tolbert's girlfriend's home in Glen Burnie. It was the first slaying in the state capital's Historic District in more than two decades.

Assistant State's Attorney Frederick M. Paone, who sought life without parole and the maximum sentence for related convictions, called Griffin's slaying "a crime of absolutely unspeakable violence" that rocked the neighborhood.

He said he was gratified by the long prison term. He said that had the case been a bit different, he could have sought a death sentence.

Whether Tolbert fired the fatal shots is uncertain, and, according to police, Tolbert and Blake blamed each other. Only the triggerman is eligible for the death penalty.

Silkworth also sentenced Tolbert to 20 years each for conspiracy to commit armed robbery with a deadly weapon and handgun violations, which will be served at the same time as the 30-year term.

The case has been a rollercoaster, legally and emotionally. Part of Tolbert's statement to police initially was thrown out by Silkworth. Prosecutors appealed - which was risky, because if they lost the appeal, they'd have to drop the charges - and Tolbert was released from jail.

During that time, police said they videotaped him in a drug deal, and he was returned to jail. He has yet to be tried on that drug charge, as well as one for which he was awaiting trial when he was charged with Griffin's murder.

In 2003, Maryland's top court ruled that his statements were usable at trial.

Police said Tolbert called the killing a "robbery gone bad." Attorneys for Blake, however, successfully argued that police took his statement illegally. The state's highest court agreed. Under a quirk in state law, when prosecutors lose a pre-trial appeal, they forfeit the case.

A stolen future

Before sentencing, Rawls told the judge she replays in her head a scene that goes from elation to horror.

She recalled coming to Griffin's home for a long weekend at the beach to discuss wedding plans, only to learn that he'd been slain. Now, she said, her loneliness is indescribable, and she mourns for a stolen future.

"I thought we'd grow old together, and that's what we should have been allowed to do," she said.

Linda Griffin spoke directly to Tolbert, telling him he took her brother away less than a year after her husband died, plunging her into profound depression.

Her words prompted Tolbert's mother to cry. Juanita Johns' tears became uncontrollable when she reached the podium to address the judge.

Between deep sobs, Johns begged Silkworth to give her son some hope of leaving prison. "Don't take him away forever," she cried.

The case "is just killing me slowly," she said.

Seeking leniency in his rambling remarks, Tolbert apologized, said he got in with the wrong crowd, wanted to get out of his troubled neighborhood and worries that his 1-year-old daughter will grow up without a father, like he did.

In jail, he has dwelled on what might have happened, not only that day but had he gone to college, he said.

"For, like, the last 2 1/2 years, it's just been a lot of whys and should haves," he said.

At age 8, Tolbert lost his right arm to an accidental electrocution. Community support flowed to him. He told The Sun in a 2003 jail interview that he'd spent most of the money he received in a settlement. Since the accident, he has been withdrawn, his lawyer said. His criminal record dates to when he was 14.

Griffin's friends said they were pleased with a sentence that they felt protected the community and sends a warning.

"We wanted this. But when you hear it, it's still pretty intense," said Ann Harrington, a friend of Griffin's who helped found the Box of Rain program in Griffin's memory to help disadvantaged youths. "No one wins."

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