Two families weep as killer is sentenced

Blake, 22, gets life in 2002 slaying of Annapolis man

August 16, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

Moments after the sentence was handed down, the murder victim's relatives hugged the killer's distraught mother.

Leeander Jerome Blake was going to prison for life, five years after the carjacking-murder of businessman Straughan Lee Griffin on a picturesque cul-de-sac in Annapolis' historic district. And in a federal courtroom in Baltimore yesterday, two families were left to mourn.

"Another mother just lost her son," Neal H. Griffin, the victim's brother, said of the young man who had suggested the carjacking. "There is no victory in that."

But to this day, he said in court, his grief is so incalculable that "it's almost impossible to say brother and murder in the same sentence," just as he cannot watch the type of media productions that were his brother's business.

The emotional hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore brought an apparent end to a case in which Blake had faced murder charges in state court, but saw the charges dropped after he successfully argued that he was illegally interrogated by police. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on the state's appeal, but then a federal grand jury indicted Blake on murder and carjacking charges last year.

Yesterday, his voice cracking and appearing scared, Blake, 22, apologized to the victim's family, asking forgiveness. "No one may think I am sincere, but I really am," said Blake, dressed in a dark suit.

His lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, had sought a 20-year prison term, saying that Blake was less blameworthy than Terrence Tolbert, who Blake said shot Straughan Griffin in the head and drove the stolen vehicle over the dying victim. The friends, then teenagers, had blamed each other for the crime, and prosecutors did not establish which was the gunman. But Tolbert, who was the subject of an outpouring of community support after losing an arm during a childhood accident, was convicted in January 2004 of murder in Griffin's death and sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 30 years.

In sentencing Blake to life plus 10 years, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said that to give him a shorter prison term than what federal guidelines called for would make a "mockery of justice in this case."

The sentencing followed Blake's June 21 conviction on federal charges of first-degree murder, carjacking and gun charges.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said yesterday that the trial's centerpieces were new witnesses and Blake's confession to police that he and a friend were looking for someone to carjack and that he pointed out Griffin -- the remarks Anne Arundel County prosecutors were barred from using but which Rosenstein called "very valuable" to the federal case.

"We are all very pleased to be able to say justice was done," Rosenstein said.

Griffin, 51, a partner in an international big-screen media production company and a familiar figure in Annapolis' sailing community, was fatally shot in the head at point-blank range as he unloaded his gray Jeep Grand Cherokee in front of his home at twilight on Sept. 19, 2002.

As he lay dying, he was run over by his vehicle while the assailants -- later identified by police as Blake, then 17, and Tolbert, then 19, neighbors in the Robinwood public housing complex in Annapolis -- sped from the cul-de-sac.

From the witness stand, Linda Griffin, the victim's sister, told Blake that she didn't hate him, but felt terrible for his family amid her own grief.

"I just feel intense sorrow for where this has brought you," she said.

Linda Griffin said her brother's killing not long after her husband's death sent her into a depression so deep that she lost her job for missing so much work. Once a frequent visitor to the cemetery, she can barely bring herself to visit her brother "in the ground," she said.

Punctuating the hearing was the obvious absence of Virginia Griffin, the victim's elderly mother, who has attended numerous proceedings, including Blake's trial. She embraced Tolbert's mother at his trial, but could not bear to attend yesterday.

Griffin's fiancee's remarks brought tears to people in the courtroom. Virginia Rawls, who first met Griffin in high school, recounted reliving in nightmares her trip to Griffin's home for a weekend of making wedding plans. She arrived to find he had been slain and, she said, "part of my soul went with him."

But sometimes she dreams he's alive and they are growing old together -- until she wakes up.

"And then the truth sets in, and I realize reality is the nightmare," she said.

She said she has heard the crime described as a robbery -- Tolbert had told police it was a "robbery gone bad" -- and said it has been one for her, robbing her of a future with the man she loved.

Blake's mother sighed deeply and wept as she testified about how hard it was to work two jobs and raise her four children alone in Robinwood, a community besieged by drugs and violence .

"I didn't raise my child to be a bad child," LaWanda Pierce, Blake's mother, told the judge.

Like her son, she apologized to the Griffin family.

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