Justices dismiss Md. case

High court ruling means murder suspect won't be tried on state charges

November 15, 2005|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

A youth accused of murdering a businessman just blocks from the State House will not face state charges after the nation's highest court yesterday threw out prosecutors' appeal and, in the process, passed on an opportunity to clarify one of the so-called Miranda warnings that govern police interrogations.

Deciding with extraordinary dispatch - oral arguments were held just two weeks ago - the Supreme Court dismissed the case with a single-line order that offered no insight into the justices' reasoning. In doing so, they avoided the question of whether police could restore a suspect's rights once they have been violated and, if so, whether they did in this case.

Police obtained an allegedly incriminating statement from the then-17-year-old after he had requested, then waived, his right to an attorney.

Leeander Jerome Blake had been charged with carjacking and fatally shooting Straughan Lee Griffin as Griffin was unloading his sport utility vehicle in front of his home in September 2002.

FOR THE RECORD - A timeline Tuesday incorrectly identified the police department that arrested and charged Leeander Jerome Blake and Terrence Tolbert with the murder of Straughan Lee Griffin. Blake and Tolbert were arrested and charged by the Annapolis police.

Blake cannot now be tried in state court for the murder, even if prosecutors agree not to use the inadmissible statement, because of a law in effect at the time that required charges to be dropped when prosecutors lose such an appeal. The law has since been changed, largely because of the publicity surrounding the case.

He might, however, face federal charges in the case. The U.S. attorney's office for Maryland declined to take up the matter, but state prosecutors said yesterday they would renew their request.

The order elated Blake's lawyer and disappointed Anne Arundel County prosecutors and police and the family of the victim, a popular businessman and sailor.

But it left the larger issue unaddressed.

Legal experts thought the Supreme Court might use the Blake case to rein in or clarify Miranda rights - the familiar recitation that opens with "You have the right to remain silent" and includes the right to a lawyer - and alter the rules for police interrogations nationwide.

Instead, the justices "are saying they made a mistake when they took the case," said Yale Kamisar, a law professor at the University of San Diego and the University of Michigan and an authority on Miranda, a landmark 1966 Supreme Court ruling to prevent coerced confessions.

The Miranda ruling established that suspects must be advised of their right to an attorney and has since been interpreted to require police to end interrogations once a suspect requests a lawyer. If a suspect wants to speak with police after requesting a lawyer, the suspect may, but the request must be initiated by the suspect.

After Blake was arrested, he asked for a lawyer and police suspended their questions. However, Blake changed his mind before an attorney arrived, and he agreed to give a statement - under conditions his attorney maintained were tantamount to duress.

Blake was in a chilly holding cell wearing only his underwear. He was handed charging documents that said "death penalty" - the maximum penalty for murder - and that said Terrence Tolbert, his neighbor who had been arrested a day earlier, had named him in the murder. As a juvenile, Blake could not have been sentenced to death.

Officer Curtis Reese, who has since left the Annapolis police force, taunted Blake by saying: "Bet you want to talk now, huh."

William Johns, lead detective in the case, said he admonished Reese for the remark.

About a half-hour later, Blake spoke with Johns.

Experts warned not to read much into the Supreme Court's order. They said that after getting into the nuts and bolts of the case, the justices might have reasoned that it was too cluttered with other issues or they might have found no issue needing their attention - or any of a number of other reasons might be at work.

Kamisar, who feared a ruling would gut Miranda, said the facts of the case were so troubling that he would retire if the Supreme Court permitted Blake's statement to be used.

But Michael D. Rushford, president of the conservative California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which filed a brief supporting the Maryland attorney general, was distressed. "We are counting this as a draw, and we are hoping to fight this battle another day," he said.

Said University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken: "We can read nothing into it. None of the justices on the court felt a need to explain it to us or to complain about their colleagues."

Warnken said he had told his students he thought that the case would "prove to be a very significant Miranda decision."

"Obviously I am wrong," he said.

Blake's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, said he "expected an opinion - and I expected to win, but not this way."

Ravenell has maintained that Blake is not guilty.

Blake, now 20, could not be reached yesterday with relatives in Virginia or locally. Ravenell said his staff told Blake, who expressed relief.

"Justice has been served," Ravenell said.

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