- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

The Maryland House yesterday unanimously passed legislation to close a legal loophole that has allowed crime suspects to roam the streets during appeals.

“It is clearly a clear common sense proposal to protect public safety,” said Delegate John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel Republican, who is leading the move for more stringent laws. “Clearly, judges ought to have discretion.”

The Democrat-controlled House voted 138-0, with three delegates abstaining, to close a loophole that forced two Anne Arundel County judges to release two murder suspects who they say confessed to fatally shooting a 51-year-old Annapolis businessman last year. The bill heads to the Senate for final approval.

Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said yesterday that the governor has not reviewed the bill.

The bill to close the loophole was sponsored by Delegates Virginia P. Clagett and Theodore Sophocleus, both Anne Arundel Democrats.

Murder suspects Terrence Tolbert and Leeander Jerome Blake were set free this year after being charged with the slaying of Straughan Lee Griffith, 51, who was shot in the head and run over by his Jeep Grand Cherokee during a carjacking outside his home on Sept. 19, 2002.

Both confessed to the crime, each saying that the other had pulled the trigger, but county judges released them because of technicalities in the cases, which prosecutors appealed.

State law requires judges to free suspects during appeals to halt frivolous court actions that could undermine a person’s right to due process.

Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth released Mr. Tolbert in September, saying police did not read him his Miranda rights a second time after he had begun to confess.

Circuit Judge Pamela L. North released Mr. Blake in June because Annapolis police did not allow him to have an attorney present after he had begun to confess.

In November, Mr. Blake was taken into custody after a state Court of Special Appeals panel overturned Judge North’s ruling. Mr. Blake is being held without bond.

Mr. Tolbert’s confession also has been upheld and his case is expected to head to court this year.

Judges Silkworth and North were appointed by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The proposed legislation would not apply to the two men charged with killing Mr. Griffith, who lived in Annapolis not far from where the legislators meet.

“The level of outrage on the part of the neighbors in the State House community was clearly a factor in the legislature’s response,” Mr. Leopold said.

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A House committee has killed a request to exclude sewer customers in Hagerstown from the so-called “flush tax.”

The House Environmental Matters Committee killed the exemption proposed by Washington County Delegate John P. Donoghue, a Democrat. Other requests for exemptions also have been shot down in the committee.

The pending legislation would create a $30 annual state fee to fund improvements in the Chesapeake Bay region. It would be added to sewer bills in the state.

The fee must be approved by the Senate.

A bill that holds out the promise of help for some Marylanders whose homes were damaged by Tropical Storm Isabel was signed into law yesterday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic leaders in the House, creates an emergency housing program, called the Hurricane Isabel Rehabilitation and Renovation Program, that will offer loans at little or no interest for repairs not covered by insurance or other aid programs.

Homeowners would have to pay only the interest on the loans for 30 years unless the property is sold.

“This is going to help some,” said Bernice Myer, whose home on Miller’s Island in Baltimore County was flooded during the storm.

“We’re still holding out hope that flood insurance is going to pay us what they owe. Then you wouldn’t need loans at all,” she said. “But for some people, there’s still going to be a gap. This will be very helpful. This was much needed.”

Ms. Myer, who had flood insurance, said she has been offered only $57,000 to replace a home that was insured for $183,000.

At a hearing on the House bill in February, other homeowners told similar tales during emotional appeals for help from the state.

Under the new law, the maximum interest rate on the loans would be 2.5 percent. A 2.5 percent rate would amount to a monthly payment of $104 on a $50,000 loan. Interest would be assessed on a sliding scale based on the affordability of repairs to homeowners, with those most in need paying no interest.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said the bill is an example of “the great things you can do in government, which is help those who need help.”

Mr. Ehrlich made $6 million available for the loan program, including $3 million in existing state housing funds and $3 million that he included in a supplement to the state budget.

Mr. Ehrlich said at the bill signing ceremony that he has created an “Isabel SWAT team” to handle claims from storm victims. The goal is to process all applications within 30 days of receipt, he said.

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