Man Sentenced to Life in Prison for Role in 2002 Fatal Carjacking

By Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

An Annapolis man was sentenced in federal court yesterday to life in prison in connection with a fatal carjacking in the city's historic district, a 2002 slaying that was the first in that area in many years.

The sentencing capped a reversal of fortune for defendant Leeander J. Blake, who avoided trial in state court despite having allegedly admitted involvement in the crime. State prosecutors abandoned the case in 2005 after courts ruled that Blake had been improperly interrogated and that his statements to police were inadmissible in state court.

Federal authorities indicted him last year, and a jury at U.S. District Court in Baltimore found him guilty in June in the death of Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, a sailor and entrepreneur. Prosecutors alleged that Blake, 22, and an associate, Terrence Tolbert, shot Griffin outside his home and then ran him over as they fled in his Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Yesterday, before the sentence was imposed, Blake made a brief statement in court, thanking God and his family and offering apologies to Griffin's family.

"No one may think I'm sensitive, but I truly am," he said.

Attorneys for both sides said the case hinged on a decision by U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson to admit the statements, excluded in state court, that Blake allegedly made in 2002.

Blake, then 17 and in custody, initially asked for a lawyer. 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, because of his age, he could not. 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 allegedly told police he had selected Griffin as the target.

Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland, said after the sentencing that "the confession obviously was very important to us."

Blake's attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, said Nickerson's ruling would be central to a planned appeal.

In court yesterday, Ravenell argued that Tolbert "pulled the trigger" and drove the vehicle that ran over the victim.

Prosecutor John F. Purcell Jr. said Blake "imposed a death sentence on Mr. Griffin" by selecting him as a target.

Nickerson noted that the jury convicted Blake of felony murder. "He was either the actual shooter and executioner or, if not, certainly an aider and abettor," Nickerson said.

The legal abstractions faded yesterday as relatives of Griffin and Blake spoke.

Linda Griffin talked about falling into such a deep depression after her brother's slaying that she was fired from her job and had to beg to get it back. Addressing Blake, she said that "it's important to hear what you have done."

"I don't hate you, Mr. Blake," she said, adding, "I just have such intense sorrow for what this had done to our family and your family."

Outside court, Griffin's brother, Neal, and Blake's mother, LaWanda Pierce, shared an embrace. "Another mother just lost her son," Griffin said afterward. "That's not a victory."

Tolbert was convicted in state court and sentenced to life in prison.

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