- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — Friends and neighbors of Straughan Lee Griffin are outraged that judges have put his two suspected killers back on the street.

“We are horrified. We think this is not just. We don’t understand a system like this,” said a woman who lived near Mr. Griffin.

Mr. Griffin, a 51-year-old businessman who lived in this city’s historic district, was shot once in the head Sept. 19, 2002, while unloading groceries outside his home on Cumberland Court, a quiet cul de sac just a few blocks from the state Capitol. The killers then ran over the dying man after stealing his Jeep Cherokee.

Terrence Tolbert, then 19, was brought in for questioning about a month after the slaying and admitted his involvement.

But Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth threw out the confession Tuesday morning, ruling that police, who had informed Mr. Tolbert of his Miranda rights, should have read him his rights again when he incriminated himself and a younger accomplice.

Mr. Tolbert, now 20, was released later that day from the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, where he was picked up by family and friends who drove him away without comment, according to news reports.

Mr. Tolbert had been jailed since October, awaiting trial for the slaying of Mr. Griffin. He admitted that he had been involved in “a robbery gone bad” with Leeander Jerome Blake, a 17-year-old neighbor from the Robinwood public housing projects where Mr. Tolbert grew up.

Both suspects, according to detectives, accused the other of pulling the trigger. Mr. Blake, now 18, is also free, turned loose in June after Circuit Judge Pamela L. North threw out his confession.

Prosecutors have appealed the judges’ decisions to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The appellate court is expected to rule on the Blake case as early as next month and has up to 120 days to rule on the Tolbert case. Until then, state law does not allow the first-degree murder suspects to be held.

“The law should be doing things that forwards justice and protects victims,” said a Cumberland Court resident who asked not to be identified. “It seems to me it is protecting the guilty.”

Many in the area share her sentiments, but only one man agreed to give his name. With no one behind bars for Mr. Griffin’s death, many say they fear retribution. One eyewitness whose name was published in a news report is so scared for her safety that she is escorted daily to work by police.

Cumberland Court, with its brick-paved road barely 17 feet wide, ivy-laced chimneys, rose gardens and wooden porches, would look right at home in an English country village.

“I live downtown, and few people even know this street exists,” said a man who answered the door at one of the nine homes on the court. “This is such an idyllic, quaint little neighborhood. This [killing] was extremely shocking.”

Mr. Griffin lived alone. His three-story home has been sold. The new owners have not yet moved in, though, and the memory of what happened a year ago lives on: Three white roses with a candle sit atop a foot-high stone fence that borders the front yard.

“He was one of the good guys,” said a friend. “If you had a room filled with 100 good guys, he would be the No. 1 guy. This was just so senseless.”

A neighbor agreed. “Those guys took away our sense of security. And for nothing. Lee would have given them the car, all they had to do was ask,” she said. “You have this guy who was so bad, so heinous to society that he was not even free on bond or bail, and now, because of this, he is just let go, and he can go as he pleases.”

More shocking for many is that the confessions have been thrown out. “What really irritates me is that [Judge] Silkworth let these guys go,” said Glenn Lahman, 79, a local resident, sitting at the bar of Galway Bay, an Irish-styled pub less than two blocks from the crime scene. “I understand it’s a procedural matter, but that is clearly something that is wrong with our judicial system.”

Judge Silkworth, 54, has been a member of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court since being appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1996. He graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1975. Before serving on the court, he had served 20 years in private practice. He is married and has five children. Messages left at the Silkworth home in Severna Park, as well as with his office in Annapolis, were not returned.

Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said prosecutors felt they could not proceed without the confession, and are contesting the judge’s decision. Under the appeal statute, which is rarely used in homicide cases, a defendant must be released until the appeals court rules on the matter. The state’s decision to contest the judge’s ruling carries a huge risk: If the appeal is rejected, under Maryland law, the case cannot go forward, and the defendant must be freed.

“Although we know the gamble we take in making this decision, we feel strongly that the trial court erred,” Mr. Weathersbee said. “This has been an agonizing decision.”

State Delegate John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel County Republican, said the case has made him as angry as many of his constituents. “If there is a loophole in the law, it should be closed by the end of the next General Assembly.”

According to accounts from the Baltimore Sun, the judge ruled earlier this month that Mr. Tolbert, who had been given his Miranda warning when brought in for questioning, should have been advised of his rights again when he incriminated himself 90 minutes after the interview started. He told the officer conducting the polygraph test that he “had more involvement.” He later blamed the killing on his accomplice, according to testimony.

The judge ruled that once Mr. Tolbert admitted his involvement in a crime, he should have been read his rights again because he was no longer free to leave.

The Sun also reported last week the frustration of Mr. Griffin’s parents. “It seems like our son, whose innocent life was wiped out in seconds, has been forgotten by the courts,” Virginia Griffin, 77, said in a phone interview from her home in Portsmouth, Va.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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