The Washington Post

Jury Is Asked to Believe Suspect’s Statements on Carjacking

- By Eric Rich

A prosecutor in federal court urged jurors yesterday to find an Annapolis man guilty in a fatal carjacking in the city’s historic district because, despite an absence of physical evidence, he “basically admitted to the entire crime.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. Hanlon, delivering a closing argument after a week-long trial, said Leeander J. Blake had implicated himself in the slaying, to varying degrees, in statements to police and to his onetime girlfriend. To each, Hanlon said, Blake admitted that he and a friend had set out together on the afternoon of Sept. 19, 2002, in search of a target for a carjacking.

Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, an entreprene­ur and sailing enthusiast, was shot once at point-blank range while unloading his Jeep Cherokee outside his home on a culde-sac. After their arrests, Blake and his friend Terrence Tolbert each named the other as the shooter.

“We do not know who fired the gun, who carried the weapon, who came up with the idea,” Hanlon said in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. “But under the law, it doesn’t matter.”

Blake’s attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, urged jurors not to give weight to his client’s statements. Blake’s relationsh­ip with the girlfriend had ended badly, he said, and he suggested that she was coached when she testified before the grand jury.

Of the statements to the police, Ravenell told the jury, “You know that what occurred with Mr. Blake was more than what the government would want you to believe.”

Those statements have been the focus of much debate. Blake, then 17 and in custody, initially asked for a lawyer, both sides agree. He was then given a charging document indicating that Tolbert had named him as the shooter and that Blake could receive the death penalty, though, in fact, he was ineligible because of his age. As the document was delivered, a police officer said, “I bet you want to talk now, huh?”

Twenty-eight minutes later he did, giving a statement in which he admitted being present but named Tolbert as the shooter. Eventually, Blake told police he had selected Griffin as the target, prosecutor­s say.

In state court, Ravenell argued that the circumstan­ces amounted to coercion and that his client’s right to an attorney had been violated. The statements were ruled inadmissib­le, despite a prosecutio­n appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the state case was dropped.

Federal prosecutor­s took up the case last year, indicting Blake on carjacking and other charges. U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson handed the prosecutio­n a key victory by ruling that the contested statements were admissible in federal court.

Still, Ravenell has reprised his arguments at trial, urging jurors to consider the circumstan­ces under which the state- ments were taken and to give them little weight. Once Blake asked for a lawyer, Ravenell said yesterday, “that should have been it.”

He told the jury: “The alleged confession to the police is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Tolbert was convicted in Circuit Court and sentenced in 2005 to life without the possibilit­y of parole.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Purcell Jr., who delivered the prosecutio­n’s rebuttal argument, called the defense claim that Blake was present but not involved “pathetic, ridiculous and unbelievab­le.”

Purcell argued that Blake’s incriminat­ing statements to police are no less credible even if the officer’s inappropri­ate comment influenced his willingnes­s to speak. It is the function of the judge, not the jury, to determine whether evidence should be excluded, Purcell said. “It’s in,” he said. “It’s been admitted.” The jury is expected to begin deliberati­ng today.

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