Get out of jail free?
Dirty cop undermines gun convict’s guilty plea
Published: October 16, 2013
Since Mark Lunsford, a Baltimore City detective assigned to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), was charged and pleaded guilty to lying and embezzling in 2009 and 2010, federal prosecutors have mostly managed to contain the resulting damage to cases Lunsford worked on. But the gun case against one of Lunsford’s targets—Cortez Leon Fisher, now 39 years old—has been different.
Fisher’s 2008 guilty plea was reversed by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, and the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office is currently grappling with whether to dismiss the indictment against him or continue to press the charges, which were built on one of Lunsford’s lies, according to court records.
In an Oct. 6 letter to City Paper, Fisher says he’s “waiting to see if the government is going to try and re-charge me,” adding that “I don’t think that I will get a fair chance at justice in my case because everyone is trying to keep the matter hush-hush.”
Fisher’s attorney, Marta Kahn, did not respond to messages seeking comment and clarification about the status of Fisher’s case. An Oct. 25 hearing on the matter has been scheduled before U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, but Marcia Murphy, spokesperson for the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, says “it appears that the hearing will be postponed since there are still issues to be resolved.”
Fisher and Lunsford have known one another for a long time. In the cat-and-mouse game of the Baltimore drug game, Fisher came of age slinging drugs in Murphy Homes, according to court documents, and was named a defendant in 24 criminal cases in Baltimore City courts between 1993 and 2004. Lunsford helped make some of those cases against Fisher, including one in 1999 for armed pot dealing and one in 2001 for drug dealing, but Fisher wasn’t convicted.
The FBI—after Lunsford had been charged for lying about his use of a confidential informant in order to receive departmental funds, which would then be split between the two—interviewed Lunsford about Fisher, according to court documents. A document memorializing the interview confirms their long familiarity with one another.
“Lunsford said his association with Fisher’s family goes back to his time in patrol,” the document states, “when he was in the Murphy Homes projects. Lunsford arrested Cortez Fisher and Cortez Fisher’s brother, ‘Midget,’” who “was killed in the Murphy Homes later after being released from jail.”
Lunsford eventually got something to stick to Fisher. In 2004, gun-and-drugs charges Lunsford brought against him in state court went federal, prompting a guilty plea for being a felon in possession of a firearm and a 36-month prison sentence. When Fisher got out, Lunsford came at him again in October 2007—and this time, Lunsford later admitted, he did it by fabricating evidence to support the search warrant that turned up a gun and some crack cocaine in Fisher’s residence. But Fisher didn’t know about the lie when, in July 2008, a year before Lunsford was charged, he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In March 2010, as Lunsford was preparing to plead guilty, Fisher started fighting back. From his prison cell in Fairton, N.J., Fisher filed a motion requesting that his indictment be dismissed because, he claimed, Lunsford “planted drugs” and other evidence of crimes “on me and in my apartment,” “stole jewelry and money from my apartment,” and split the proceeds from selling the jewelry with an informant. In addition to claiming Lunsford “did knowingly lie on a federal document and to a federal court and state court judge in order to obtain a warrant for probable cause to search,” Fisher said Lunsford, after arresting him, “confiscated my keys and returned to the apartment later and took a safe containing all my jewelry and personal property.”
In the legal battle that ensued, Khan was appointed to represent Fisher. Motz eventually denied Fisher’s request to withdraw his guilty plea, writing that Fisher “does not deny that he was unlawfully in possession of a firearm” and that “I cannot find that a failure to allow [Fisher] to withdraw his guilty plea would result in a ‘miscarriage of justice.’”
After three 4th Circuit judges reviewed Motz’s ruling, they reversed it in April in a split decision. The majority—judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd—called the case “extraordinary” and held that Lunsford’s “affirmative misrepresentation, which informed the defendant’s decision to plead guilty and tinged the entire proceeding, rendered the defendant’s plea involuntary and violated his due-process rights.” Dissenting Judge G. Steven Agee, while calling Lunsford’s conduct “reprehensible,” wrote that “our natural reaction of extreme distaste to Lunsford’s criminal act does not instantaneously transform Fisher’s guilty plea into some form of due process violation that permits him to now withdraw that plea.”
The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office has handled the fallout from Lunsford’s misdeeds on various fronts since the charges against him were filed in 2009, including in cases covered in detail by City Paper. A lengthy 2011 trial of a Baltimore man and his Texas conspirator accused of bringing Mexican cartel drugs to Maryland, for instance, involved prolonged testimony contending with Lunsford’s role in the investigation, but a jury found the men guilty. The case against pot-trafficker Querida Lewis, which CP examined due to her connections to thrice-convicted Baltimore bailbondsman and real-estate developer Milton Tillman Jr., also was embroiled in lengthy legal battles over Lunsford’s role in her probe, but she ultimately pleaded guilty.
Unlike these cases, though, Fisher’s was built solely on Lunsford’s sworn word for obtaining the evidence that led to a conviction—unless there’s other evidence, not yet used, that prosecutors have to prove Fisher possessed the gun and crack that day in October 2007.
Fisher and Lunsford share more than a long history together on Baltimore’s streets; they are also both federal convicts. But while Fisher continues to serve his sentence, looking forward to a May 2017 release date, Lunsford’s 20 months of incarceration are over, and in September, his supervised release ended. He’s a free man, unbeholden to the criminal justice system—which is what Fisher aims to be, sooner or later.
> Email Van Smith