Mr. Blake's luck

November 16, 2005

Maryland prosecutors and police officers are understandably disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has dismissed the case of Leeander Jerome Blake. So is the family of Straughan Lee Griffin, an Annapolis businessman who was killed in his driveway during a 2002 carjacking. The real disappointment in the case, however, is some inappropriate police behavior - and an oddity in state law - that may ultimately keep Mr. Blake beyond the law's reach.

After Mr. Griffin's killing, police arrested Mr. Blake and Terrence Tolbert. During questioning, Mr. Blake, who was 17 at the time, asked for a lawyer, thus invoking his right to remain silent under the Supreme Court's Miranda decision. Before the lawyer arrived, however, two officers came to his holding cell with a document showing that Mr. Tolbert had blamed him for the crime and indicating, incorrectly, that Mr. Blake was eligible for the death penalty. When one officer suggested that Mr. Blake might want to talk, the other officer immediately told his colleague that they could not talk to Mr. Blake because he had already asked for a lawyer.

About 30 minutes later, Mr. Blake agreed to talk without a lawyer and made an incriminating statement. Last year, the Maryland Court of Appeals came to the unanimous conclusion that the first officer violated Mr. Blake's Miranda rights and that his statement had to be thrown out.

The Supreme Court could have offered more guidance as to how much leeway police might have in talking to a suspect who has asked for a lawyer. But after hearing oral arguments just two weeks ago, the court dismissed the case this week without explanation. That leaves the last word with the state Court of Appeals and its disapproval of the first officer's inappropriate remark.

Earlier this year, Mr. Tolbert was tried and convicted of first-degree murder. But prosecutors had to let Mr. Blake go because of previous state laws that required automatic release of a suspect when a prosecutor appeals a judge's pretrial ruling, and that mandated that charges be dropped if the appeals were unsuccessful. Subsequent changes in the law could not reverse Mr. Blake's release.

It now falls to federal prosecutors to see if Mr. Blake can be tried on federal carjacking or other charges. That may be the only course left, if justice is to be served. Otherwise, while Mr. Tolbert serves a life sentence, Mr. Blake will continue to benefit from one police officer's mistake.

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