Right of silence

April 21, 2005

`YOU HAVE the right to remain silent." That line is part of the famous warning that protects against overzealous police ea- ger to secure a suspect's confession. Named for the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case that limits police interrogation of suspects without lawyers, the "Miranda warning" has become a familiar staple of crime shows. But it's hardly been entertaining in Maryland, where a statement in an Annapolis murder case was thrown out last year by the state's highest court on the grounds that police prompted a suspect to talk after he had invoked his Miranda rights. Now the Supreme Court will decide whether the police went too far.

It's not an easy call. This potential constitutional milestone arises out of the 2002 murder of Straughan Lee Griffin, who was shot in the head and run over in his Annapolis driveway as his sport utility vehicle was carjacked. A month later, two suspects, Terrence Tolbert and Leeander Jerome Blake, were arrested and questioned by Annapolis police.

Mr. Blake, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, asked for a lawyer. But before his request was granted, he was given a charging document that showed Mr. Tolbert had blamed him for the crime and indicated - incorrectly - that he could face the death penalty. One officer commented to Mr. Blake, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" A second officer immediately told his colleague that they could not talk to Mr. Blake. But half an hour later, the teenager indicated that he wanted to talk. After being re-advised of his Miranda rights and agreeing to talk without an attorney, he made an incriminating statement.

Should police have just left Mr. Blake alone once he asked for a lawyer? Two lower courts split on the issue. But in a unanimous ruling last year, Maryland's Court of Appeals said that the first officer's remark was the equivalent of an interrogation that violated Mr. Blake's rights and that his statement had to be thrown out.

The Supreme Court can now give police officers welcome guidance so that they can do their jobs more effectively. But beyond what the Supreme Court might do, this case already has led to some positive changes in the state. Once prosecutors lost in the Court of Appeals, they had to let Mr. Blake go under a state law that required a suspect's automatic release when a prosecutor appealed a judge's pretrial ruling. State law also required prosecutors to drop charges if those appeals were unsuccessful.

The General Assembly has since changed both laws - a judge must determine if a suspect should be released, and prosecutors who lose appeals in homicide cases can reinstate charges. The legislature should consider broadening that category to include other violent crimes, such as rape.

In the meantime, Mr. Tolbert was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in January. A trial for Mr. Blake would make justice complete in this case.

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