Judge to allow teen's carjacking confession

March 13, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

Federal prosecutors will be allowed to use an Annapolis teenager's confession to police in a notorious 2002 fatal carjacking in Annapolis' upscale historic district, a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore ruled yesterday.

The decision by Judge William M. Nickerson was a setback for the defense of Leeander Jerome Blake and a victory that had eluded state prosecutors, costing them a murder case. State courts ruled the confession inadmissible; federal authorities later charged Blake with carjacking resulting in death and related counts.

"It's a significant evidentiary ruling," said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "But the question of the defendant's guilt or innocence remains to be decided at trial."

Blake, who was then 17 and is now 21, and Terrence Tolbert, his neighbor in the Robinwood public housing complex, were charged in Anne Arundel County in the Sept. 19, 2002, fatal carjacking in which Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, was killed in front of his home. Authorities think they shot Griffin as he was unloading his car, then ran him over with it as they fled.

According to federal prosecutors, Blake admitted that he and Tolbert had gone to the Historic District to rob someone and steal a car. He maintained that Tolbert, who lost one arm in a childhood accident, was the shooter and driver. But Blake told investigators that he pointed out Griffin, a businessman waiting for his fiancee to arrive, to his friend.

The victim's mother, sister, fiance and best friend, who flew to Baltimore from Connecticut, attended yesterday's hearing.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, Blake's attorney, said Nickerson's ruling was wrong and that the government had been allowed to "forum-shop" and take the case to the federal court.

"The confession is, as most confessions go, not favorable to the defendant," Ravenell said. Blake claimed that he was improperly interrogated by Annapolis police, and Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela North had agreed.

County prosecutors made a high-stakes gamble on a pretrial appeal - under state law, if they lost, the case would die. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the prosecution's appeal but decided not to rule, and that ended the Anne Arundel case. The law was changed as a result of the case.

Federal prosecutors took the case last year. Ravenell said the trial is scheduled for June.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

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