WASHINGTON – After his arrest on murder charges in the cold, early hours of Oct. 26, 2002, 17-year-old Leeander Jerome Blake was taken to the Annapolis Police Department wearing just boxer shorts and a tank top.
Police read Blake his rights and he requested a lawyer. He sat alone for a half hour until officers returned with a statement of charges saying he faced the possible consequence of “DEATH.”
“I bet you want to talk now, huh?” said Officer Curtis Reese after Detective William Johns handed Blake the charges, using a voice that Johns described in court as loud and confrontational. Soon after, Blake did talk –without a lawyer or a parent present.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday in the case of Maryland v. Blake, which will determine whether the police violated Blake’s rights and whether his statement can be used as evidence in court.
The Supreme Court’s ruling could further clarify the rules that police must follow when questioning suspects in custody. It will certainly determine whether Blake goes free or has to stand trial for the Sept. 19, 2002, murder of Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, of Annapolis.
According to court records, Griffin was in front of his home in the city’s historic district when carjackers shot him in the head then ran over him as they fled.
Terrence Tolbert, Blake’s friend and neighbor in an Annapolis public housing community, was convicted of first-degree murder in the case in January and sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 30 years for armed carjacking.
Before his arrest, Tolbert, who was 19 at the time, took a polygraph test that showed deception and made statements implicating himself in the slaying. He asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his plea to have those statements kept out of court, but in October 2004 it declined to hear the case.
At his trial, Tolbert testified he and Blake were high on PCP and walking around in search of a ride to Glen Burnie, but that Blake pulled the trigger.
At issue Tuesday is the landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision of 1966, where the Supreme Court found that self-incriminating statements made by suspects in police custody could only be used as evidence if the accused were informed of their rights first.
The Supreme Court clarified Miranda in 1981, deciding in Edwards v. Arizona, that once a suspect in custody requests an attorney, the police must stop all interrogation until a lawyer is present.
Maryland’s Court of Appeals, in an opinion written by Judge Irma S. Raker, found that police violated Blake’s rights and that the evidence against him cannot be used in court because the statement made by Reese was “made specifically for the purpose of getting Mr. Blake to talk.”
In explaining the decision, Raker wrote: “He is still 17 years old. Still undressed. Still in a cold cell, where he is facing death.”
Blake was not, in fact, facing death, because Maryland law prohibits executing defendants under age 18, but he had no way of knowing that because the police erred in the list of charges they gave him.
Maryland appealed the decision arguing that one improper comment by a police officer should not eliminate all opportunities for suspects to change their minds and speak without a lawyer, said Kathryn Grill Graeff, the Maryland assistant attorney general who will represent the state before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court will decide the case by July, and when it does, it may clarify the sort of comments and questions that constitute interrogation once a suspect has asked for a lawyer, said Mark Graber a constitutional law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
It could be that asking if a suspect wants a cup of coffee is seen as a method of ingratiating an officer and encouraging the suspect to talk, said Graber. Still, he doesn’t anticipate any major changes as a result of this case.
“It turns out that most cases don’t have a big impact on how police do their jobs,” Graber said. “Police do what they want to do and as a result I would expect to that Maryland v. Blake will have more impact on what people writing essays for law reviews will do than what police officers will do.”
Maryland’s interest in the case goes beyond the possible implications for police interrogation practices.
“Under the law in effect at the time he was charged he cannot be tried unless we prevail,” Graeff said.
In other words, if the state loses, Blake likely will go free.