Justices weigh suspect's rights

High court hears arguments about teen's statement to police in murder case


WASHINGTON -- A high-profile and emotional Annapolis murder case reached the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, as justices peppered lawyers for a young murder suspect and the state of Maryland with questions about when a suspect might change his mind and talk to police.

With lightning-fast inquiries, justices focused on whether the violation of a teen murder suspect's right to have an attorney present means his subsequent statements to police - and ultimately the entire case - will not go to trial.

Jumping from the facts to legal points, the justices asked what an Annapolis detective could have done to rectify a police officer's improper prodding of Leeander Jerome Blake, and whether what the detective did was enough.

Maryland's highest court ruled that Detective William Johns' repudiation of the officer in front of Blake did not undo the damage of the officer's taunting. Blake's alleged confession to the 2002 killing of an Annapolis businessman was then thrown out.

"What in your judgment would it take to remove the taint?" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Kenneth W. Ravenell, Blake's lawyer.

Ravenell replied that the best way to restore the right to an attorney is to get him one. He said that what Johns did failed as a solution, and that he doubted any remedy for violating a suspect's rights existed, a position several justices took issue with.

Ravenell also told the justices that to let officers violate a suspect's rights and then correct it would lead to a "good-cop, bad-cop" routine that would encourage police abuses of suspects' rights.

But Kathryn Grill Graeff, chief of criminal appeals for the Maryland attorney general's office, stressed that the detective moved quickly to repair the damage done by one officer.

The question, Graeff said, is whether a reasonable person in the suspect's shoes would understand that he is not being pressured to talk.

"There is no question," she said, that a person would understand that.

At issue is whether Blake was responding to police prodding, as Ravenell contends, or initiating the police interview, as Graeff maintains, when he gave his statement.

The outcome of Maryland v. Blake could have far-reaching implications for police practices around the country. While some say it could lead to a reasonable interpretation of the "you have the right to an attorney" portion of the well-known Miranda warnings advising suspects of their rights, others say it could invite dangerous police abuses.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. also pointed out an immediate and practical effect of the case: If the Maryland attorney general's office does not prevail, Blake, under a state law that has been changed as a result of this case, can never be tried in state court for Straughan Lee Griffin's murder. (It's unclear whether he could face a federal prosecution.)

Blake, then 17, and his neighbor, Terrence Tolbert, then 19, were charged with the Sept. 19, 2002, carjacking and shooting of Griffin, 51, as he unloaded his sport utility vehicle in front of his home near the State House. A wounded Griffin was then run over by his vehicle.

Blake and Tolbert implicated each other in the crime, police have testified, and both challenged the admissibility of their statements to police.

Tolbert lost, and was convicted early this year of first-degree murder in Griffin's death. Blake won and was freed.

After Blake was arrested before dawn on Oct. 26, 2002, an Annapolis detective gave him charging documents indicating that he faced the death penalty and that his friend blamed the crime on him. Another officer said, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" and was immediately reprimanded in front of Blake. A half-hour later, Blake did talk.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's top court, agreed with Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North's ruling that the officer violated Blake's rights, saying that the remark was an illegal interrogation because once a suspect asks for a lawyer, police cannot question him any more. It also was incorrect to say Blake faced the death penalty because he was a juvenile.

The justices offered no hint at when the court will issue a ruling, though it must act before the term ends in June. If its members deadlock, as seems possible - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor heard arguments but might retire before a ruling is made - the court could rehear the case so that a newly seated ninth justice can tip the scale.

With a few of the justices saying little if anything, it was unclear how the court might come down in the case, though some justices are considered more protective of suspects and others more harsh toward them.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the high court's ruling in the 1981 Edwards v. Arizona case - which holds that once a suspect invokes his right to a lawyer, police must stop questioning him - was designed to prevent police from hounding a suspect, a point Ravenell disputed. Blake, Scalia said, was not hounded.

But Ginsburg expressed concern that Blake thought he could face the death penalty. "There was nothing to assure Blake" that he would not worsen his situation by not talking with police, she said.

James A. Feldman, assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, who was given a few minutes to bolster Graeff's argument, said North did not fairly weigh all circumstances in deciding that Blake did not voluntarily choose to talk to police.

Blake did not attend the argument. Ravenell said his client is "very concerned" about the case and is mindful that his co-defendant is serving life without parole plus 30 years.

But Griffin's mother and sister, from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, emerged tearfully, saying that listening to the argument in which the victim's name was not mentioned once was far more painful an experience than they had steeled themselves for.

"All this legal talk," wept Virginia Griffin, the victim's mother. "For us, it's personal."


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.