U.S. attorney might take Blake case

Suspect in 2002 killing of Annapolis man can't be tried in Maryland courts

November 16, 2005|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

Federal prosecutors said yesterday they will consider bringing charges against a youth accused of killing an Annapolis businessman, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to revive Anne Arundel County's failed attempt to try the teenager for murder.

But any federal prosecution would have to overcome formidable legal hurdles, experts say, including lingering constitutional questions.

"We're going to take a look at the case, evaluate the evidence and determine whether this is something we should take into federal court," said Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland, whose office is expecting a request from state prosecutors to take up the case.

Rosenstein declined to say what charges could be filed in U.S. District Court against Leeander Jerome Blake. He said his office routinely receives requests to review state cases but would not say what factors he might use to evaluate Blake's case.

Blake and another man, since convicted, were charged with carjacking and fatally shooting Straughan Lee Griffin in September 2002. Then 17, Blake allegedly made incriminating statements to police. But last year, the state's highest court ruled that police had improperly questioned him and deemed his statement inadmissible.

The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the state's appeal of that ruling Monday, opting not to weigh in on the issue of whether police violated Blake's rights during the police interrogation and disappointing those looking for a clarification of the reach of Miranda warnings.

Because of a Maryland law - since changed - the state's failed appeal means that Blake cannot be tried in state court for the murder. But he could be tried on federal charges of carjacking, said Andrew Levy, an adjunct professor at University of Maryland School of Law and a trial lawyer in private practice.

"Double jeopardy doesn't apply" in this case, he said. The federal government can prosecute the same person for the same crime where both the federal and state governments have jurisdiction.

Federal statute

Because carjacking - unlike murder - violates a federal statute, federal prosecutors could use that as their opening. (Last week, a 47-year-old man was sentenced in federal court in Baltimore to 12 1/2 years in prison for robbing and attempting to carjack a law school student in the city last year.)

"Not only could they try him for the death but, theoretically, they could convince the court to allow them to use the [incriminating statement]," Levy said.

But while federal judges are not bound by the decisions of the state court, the defendant's statement is likely to be inadmissible in federal court for the same reason it was inadmissible in a state court, said Dale P. Kelberman, a partner at the law firm of Miles & Stockbridge and a former assistant U.S. attorney for Maryland. "I'm not sure the case would fare any better in federal court," he said.

Blake's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, expressed a similar view. "The testimony by witnesses is there, and that won't change," said Ravenell. "I don't believe the evidence lends itself to any different characterization of the legal issues."

Prosecution barriers

Federal prosecutors have other barriers to overcome, Kelberman said. Because of an internal policy, the Department of Justice typically doesn't pursue cases that have been prosecuted in state court unless there's an "exceptional reason" to do so, he said. In addition, the Maryland U.S. attorney's office usually doesn't prosecute juveniles.

"I'm not sure whether they might make an exception for a murder case with someone just shy of his 18th birthday," Kelberman said.

Federal prosecutors, he added, could be aided by Blake's co-defendant, Terrence Tolbert. He was charged with the same crimes, convicted and was sentenced in January to life without parole plus 30 years.

No murder weapon was found. But police said the two defendants made incriminating statements against each other. "They might get his cooperation," Kelberman said.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on how long it would take to make a decision about the case. According to the federal statute of limitations, prosecutors have five years from the date of the crime to act.

Rosenstein said that, in general, prosecutors weigh the "competitive advantage" of taking a case into federal court, seeing whether the penalties against a convicted defendant might be stronger there. Sometimes, rules of evidence or other legal conventions can favor prosecutors in federal court.

Selective about cases

But the number of federal prosecutors in the state - about 70 - is small in comparison with the hundreds of state prosecutors, forcing the U.S. attorney to be more selective about which cases the office can adopt.

If a federal prosecution were to go forward, the Blake case could end up back in the U.S. Supreme Court, "but that's way down the road," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

"The first thing we will do is make sure they have all the police reports and documents they might need to make the decision," he said. "It's quite a bit of material. It will take them some time to go through it."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Matthew Dolan contributed to this article.

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