- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — A man on trial in the killing of a businessman during a botched 2002 carjacking made some bad decisions but did not plot the crime or kill the victim, his attorney said yesterday during opening statements of his murder trial in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.

“The key to this is you have to be a participant,” said Mark Van Bavel, the attorney for defendant Terrence Tolbert.

Mr. Van Bavel said the crime was a “wholly unplanned, stupid, spontaneous act” by Leeander Blake, who also was arrested. Charges were dropped pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on the validity of his confession.

The trial is scheduled to resume today. Lawyers say a decision could be announced as soon as Monday.

Mr. Tolbert, 21,is accusedof killing Straughan Lee Griffin on Sept. 19, 2002, as he was unloading groceries from his Jeep Grand Cherokee, in front of his Cumberland Court home, near the State Capitol.

Mr. Griffin was shot in the head, robbed of the keys to his Jeep and then run over by the stolen vehicle.

Mr. Van Bavel said his client panicked and made a bad decision when he chose to get into the Jeep with Mr. Blake, 19, who drove over Mr. Griffin’s body.

“What else is he going to do?” Mr. Van Bavel asked. “He’s a black kid standing in downtown Annapolis as Griffin, who is white, lay dying.”

But prosecutor Frederick Paone said even if jurors find that Mr. Tolbert wasn’t the shooter, he can be found equally responsible under Maryland law.

“It doesn’t matter who pulled the gun and who pulled the trigger,” Mr. Paone said. “If he aided and abetted, he’s just as guilty. The main eyewitness can’t be here with us. And he can’t be with us because of what he did,” he said, pointing at Mr. Tolbert.

Only one of six witnesses yesterday identified Mr. Tolbert as being in the area just minutes before the slaying and the carjacking. Delia Chapin said she recognized Mr. Tolbert because his right arm is missing.

Mr. Tolbert was caught in an electric transformer when he was 8, causing the amputation.

Mrs. Chapin, who has run a hair salon for five years near the site of the killing, said Mr. Tolbert and another black youth made her nervous that night as she stood in her shop door talking with friend Marie Thomas.

“My attention was drawn from his face to his body,” Mrs. Chapin said. “He only had one arm.”

The women testified that the youths walked up and stood on each side of Mrs. Thomas.

“It didn’t make sense for them to stand on each side of us as we talked,” Mrs. Thomas said.

However, Mrs. Thomas testified that she did not notice that the man on her right side was missing an arm.

The women said that Mr. Tolbert and Mr. Blake, both of Annapolis, finally walked toward Cumberland Court at about 7:30 p.m. and that they heard what they thought was a gunshot a few minutes later.

Three female neighbors of Mr. Griffin testified that they heard a gunshot, looked out their windows and saw Mr. Griffin’s body in the street and his Jeep speeding away, then called police. However, none of them said she saw who was inside the Jeep.

One month after the slaying, Mr. Tolbert was charged with first- and second-degree murder, armed robbery and carjacking. Mr. Blake,who was 17 at the time of the shooting, was arrested and charged as an adult the next day.

Judges ordered the men held without bail pending trial. Mr. Tolbert was eligible for the death penalty, but State’s Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee instead sought a sentence of life without parole. He has yet to disclose the basis for his decision. Mr. Blake did not qualify for the death penalty because of his age at the time of the killing.

Both made statements to police. But on June 2, 2003, Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Pamela L. North ruled that Mr. Blake’s statement could not be used because an officer had persuaded him to make the statement, even though Mr. Blake had said he wanted an attorney.

Despite their no-bond status, both suspects were released from jail as prosecutors appealed separate court rulings dismissing their statements to police.

Mr. Tolbert waslocked up again four months later when the Court of Appeals ruled that his confession could be used at trial.

Mr. Blake was taken back into custody later.

Prosecutors appealed the ruling by Judge North on Mr. Blake’s confession. On May 12, 2004, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the statements were inadmissible. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran has appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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