Legislators seeking change in law to assist prosecutors

Revision would reduce cases dismissed after pretrial appeals

General Assembly

April 05, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland lawmakers have moved to change a quirk in state law that has prevented prosecutors from trying a teenage murder suspect who police said admitted to a role in a fatal carjacking in Annapolis in 2002.

The General Assembly last week passed - and sent to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - a measure to change the state law that requires dismissal of charges when prosecutors lose a pretrial appeal.

A spokeswoman for Ehrlich said he has not taken a position on the measure.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors had to suspend their murder case against Leeander Jerome Blake, 19, in the death of businessman Straughan Lee Griffin after failing to overturn a judge's ruling tossing out Blake's allegedly incriminating statements to police.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly stated that legislation allowing prosecutors to try suspects in homicide cases despite losing pretrial appeals has been forwarded to the governor. Identical House and Senate bills each await approval in the other's chamber before either can be sent to the governor.
The Sun regrets the error.

Blake has been free since May, and, barring intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, a murder charge against him will be dismissed. The Supreme Court has not decided whether it will take the Maryland attorney general's appeal.

Blake's alleged accomplice, Terrence Tolbert, was convicted in January of first-degree murder in Griffin's slaying in front of his home near the State House. Prosecutors had won an appeal that allowed them to use his allegedly incriminating remarks at trial.

"I think having a case that highlighted what can happen makes all the difference in the world - and right here, right near the capital," said state Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who also works for the state's attorney's office and was a sponsor of the bill.

The original law was crafted about two decades ago to allow prosecutors to make pretrial appeals, but it sought to discourage frivolous appeals by imposing harsh penalties when their efforts failed.

While state's attorneys said the troubled prosecutions of Blake and Tolbert exposed unfairness in the law, defense lawyers have argued that the current law protects defendants.

The proposal would allow prosecutors to continue to press only murder cases after they lose a pretrial appeal, but without the evidence that a judge threw out. For other crimes, there would be no such change, which Anne Arundel County lawmakers said was a concession to opponents who see the proposal as tipping the law against defendants.

Among those urging the change has been the family of Griffin, a 51-year-old businessman who was shot in a carjacking as he unloaded groceries in front of his historic district home in September 2002. The assailants ran him over with his Jeep Cherokee.

The legal roller coaster that followed Griffin's killing was the impetus for changing the law.

"We have gone all the way to the Supreme Court with the dilemma presented by this law," said Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County State's Attorney's Office.

She called the proposed change a "fitting tribute to the memory of Lee Griffin."

Virginia Griffin, the victim's mother, said the bill's passage is "sort of one of the final pieces of the puzzle."

"It doesn't help our case, but maybe somewhere down the road it will help other families," she said yesterday.

Last year, prosecutors got half of the change they wanted in what they considered a law with draconian penalties against them.

The 2004 change closed what they viewed as a loophole that - for a time - allowed Blake and Tolbert out of jail while prosecutors fought to have their statements allowed as evidence in trials. With that change, judges can decide whether to free a defendant while a prosecutor's appeal is pending.

Efforts to change the other part of the law fizzled last year. Proponents of the change vowed to return.

Already lawmakers who favor extending the proposed change to all crimes of violence are planning ahead.

"We can always expand it again," said Anne Arundel County Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.

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