Fears linger 5 years after fatal carjacking

Historic District residents seek more police in area

June 15, 2007|By Rochelle McConkie | Rochelle McConkie,Sun reporter

Cumberland Court, with its brightly painted houses, blooming gardens and people walking their dogs past the quiet cul-de-sac, looks like any peaceful street in the Historic District of Annapolis.

But five years after the brutal carjacking and murder of one of its own stunned the neighborhood, residents and employees of local businesses say concern about crime lingers.

On Monday - the day that the trial of Leeander Jerome Blake began in the fatal shooting of Straughan Lee Griffin - the city council was handed a petition with the signatures of more than 200 downtown residents and merchants demanding more of a police presence.

The petition expresses concern over the "serious escalation of crime in the city" and calls for the mayor and chief of police to come up with an action plan.

Larry Vincent, owner of Laurance Clothing on Main Street and one of the petition organizers, said its goal is to stop smaller crimes before they evolve into larger ones.

"One of the keys to controlling serious crimes is to control `quality of life' crimes," said Vincent, whose wife owns the Country Store on Maryland Avenue, just around the corner from Cumberland Court.

Griffin's death was not a direct catalyst for the petition, but Vincent said it led community members to assess the situation.

"It was the first really shocking episode we had in our neighborhood. It made us think about the Police "Department and think about crime," he said.

Officer Kevin Freeman, a Police Department spokesman, said the number of robberies jumped 60 percent last year but that most took place outside the Historic District. Overall crime has been rising in the city, he acknowledged, but "nothing violent compared to the Cumberland Court carjacking."

The mayor will hold a community forum next month to develop a plan to address such issues.

The Historic District, with its Colonial-era buildings, brick streets and waterfront, is a tourist attraction where people are used to seeing unfamiliar faces, Griffin's death was so shocking because it was the first there in two decades.

Griffin, a well-liked partner in a media projection company, was shot in the head Sept. 19, 2002, as he unloaded his Jeep Grand Cherokee in front of his home on Cumberland Court.

As the 51-year-old lay dying, he was run over by his vehicle, its weight causing crushing injuries, experts have testified.

Blake, then 17, and Terrence Tolbert, then 19, both of the Robinwood public housing community, were arrested in late October. Police said the teenagers were looking to rob someone and take a car so that they could go to Glen Burnie. Tolbert called the shooting "a robbery gone bad" and blamed it on Blake, police said.

Conviction in 2005

Tolbert was convicted in 2005 of first-degree murder and related counts in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, and was sentenced to serve life without parole plus 30 years.

The case of Blake, who was also charged with first-degree murder, went on a legal roller coaster that ended without a trial in Anne Arundel County. The defense contended that police wrongly elicited Blake's incriminating statements - in which prosecutors say he admitted pointing Griffin out as a target but denied shooting him - after he had asked for a lawyer.

Blake won a fight in state court to have his statements thrown out. Prosecutors gambled on an appeal, and, under the law at the time, once prosecutors lost that fight, they had to drop the case.

"One of the things that will always endure is the change in the law, what we call the Griffin bill," said State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. At the time Griffin was killed, state law said that prosecutors had to forfeit a case if they lost a pretrial appeal. The change did away with that penalty for prosecutors in a homicide case.

Federal authorities picked up the case, and a grand jury indicted Blake on murder and related charges in August. This spring, Blake lost his fight to keep his statements out of his federal trial in Baltimore. The trial will continue Monday.

Alderman Richard Israel said that in the year and half that he has represented the area, people have been reluctant to talk about the killing. He said he has seen increasing concern with crime and people's "confidence shaken" in city police.

`You're not as secure'

"In years past, you felt no apprehension walking the city at night, but now there's the sense that you're not as secure," Israel said.

Carter Lively, executive director of the Hammond-Harwood House, a historic Colonial home on Maryland Avenue whose back gardens are adjacent to the site of the killing, knew Griffin, whom he called "the one good guy in every 45."

He said he doesn't think about the crime much anymore, except when it is s back in the news.

But people remain more attuned to crime in the area.

"I don't think anyone's afraid to walk down Cumberland Court, but if you're walking down late at night, you might think about that," he said.

rochelle.mcconkie@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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