Eight words spoken to a teenager in police custody in Annapolis were debated yesterday at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that will determine whether the young suspect will face trial in the city's most publicized slaying in recent memory.
The outcome also could provide new guidelines for the treatment of suspects who invoke the right to counsel, experts say, potentially altering how police across the country conduct interrogations.
In October 2002, police arrested Leeander J. Blake in connection with a carjacking and slaying in the city's historic district, a crime that had gone unsolved for more than a month. Soon after he asked to see a lawyer, which had brought questioning to a halt, Blake was notified in a charging document that he could be executed. A police officer then remarked, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?"
A half-hour later, Blake did talk, telling a detective that he was at the scene but was not the gunman.
Maryland's highest court ruled last year that, because Blake had asked to see a lawyer, the statement was taken improperly and could not be used as evidence. Under a state law that since has been changed, prosecutors, because they had lost a pretrial ruling, were required to drop the charges.
At issue yesterday was whether Blake's statement should, in fact, be admissible at trial. The question hangs on whether he freely decided to speak or was coerced into doing so by the officer's taunt -- a remark that, because Blake was 17 and not eligible for the death penalty, was based on an implication that was not accurate.
The prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Grill Graeff, acknowledged that the remark by Officer Curtis Reese was improper but said the violation did not require that Blake's statements be thrown out. She argued that a detective, William Johns, attempted to remedy the damage by remarking within earshot of Blake: "No, he doesn't want to talk to us. He already asked for a lawyer. We cannot talk to him now."
"It was Blake who intended and said clearly that he wanted to talk with the police," Graeff told the justices.
Blake's attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, argued that Johns's remedy was insufficient, noting that a lower court had found that Reese's remark was intended to provoke a response. Ravenell said that allowing police to violate suspects' rights and still permitting statements obtained as a result of those violations to be used as evidence would only lead to deliberate violations.
"Do we want to encourage that kind of police abuse?" he asked the court.
Not mentioned during the argument was Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, the businessman and sailing enthusiast who was shot while unloading groceries in front of his home by assailants who then ran over his body as they fled in his Jeep Grand Cherokee.
An acquaintance of Blake's, Terrence Tolbert, was convicted in January and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in the slaying, the first in the Annapolis historic district since the 1960s. The case against Tolbert relied largely on two police officers' testimony that Tolbert incriminated himself during interviews. At trial, Tolbert admitted being present during the slaying but contended that Blake fired the shot that killed Griffin.
In the gallery at the Supreme Court yesterday were Griffin's mother and sister. They said later that hearing the case argued -- hanging as it did on legal abstractions and questions such as whether the violation of rights had been "cured" -- was a painful experience.
"My brother had no cure," said Linda Griffin. She paused and then said: "The only thing that would make this palatable is for there to be an opportunity for a trial. I think it would be horrific if there was no trial."
Under questioning by the justices, Graeff said the state could bring Blake to trial only if the high court ruled that his statements could be used as evidence.