Leveraging a Lie: Armed Drug Dealer Challenges Conviction Based on Dirty Cop’s Conduct

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 16, 2011

The fallout from former Baltimore Police Detective Mark Lunsford’s 2010 conviction for theft and lying continues. On March 9, an attorney for an armed drug dealer argued in a federal court filing that her client’s 2008 guilty plea should be vacated because Lunsford admitted to the FBI that he concocted information in the case. The defense attorney, Marta Kahn, represents 36-year-old Cortez Leon Fisher, who is serving a 10-year sentence in a federal prison in New Jersey based on a 2008 guilty plea he tendered prior to knowing of Lunsford’s deceit.

Kahn wrote that Lunsford, who was assigned to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, admitted to the FBI that he falsely attributed information used to target Fisher to a source other than the one who actually provided it. Kahn argued that Lunsford’s concealment of the truth in her client’s case likely went further, following a pattern of making up facts to build probable cause to arrest suspects, raid their homes, and steal their property.

The theft and lying charges against Lunsford were filed in September 2009 (The News Hole, Sept. 24, 2009), and were accompanied by raids that turned up suspicious items in his Sykesville home, including jewelry and $46,600 in cash. Among the jewelry seized from his home were 10 watches and numerous necklaces, bracelets, rings, and chains (The News Hole, Sept. 30, 2009).

Lunsford pleaded guilty last year (The News Hole, April 14, 2010), and was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison. His criminal conduct has affected a number of cases he worked on (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009), including a recently concluded federal trial that resulted in jury convictions of two men with direct ties to drug cartels in Mexico (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23).

In an earlier pleading Fisher made last year, before Kahn was appointed to represent him, he claimed that Lunsford “set me up and arrested me unlawfully” and that prosecutors may have withheld their knowledge of Lunsford’s misdeeds. Fisher contended that the informant in the case “never gave” Lunsford “information concerning drug activities” at Fisher’s home, and that Lunsford, after arresting Fisher, “returned to my apartment later and took a safe containing all my jewelry and personal property.”

Fisher asked the court to order the return of the stolen property, including “my watch which contains numerous diamonds with blue and red designs as details.” And since none of Lunsford’s alleged misdeeds were in evidence when Fisher pleaded guilty, he asked that his indictment be dismissed and his guilty plea overturned.

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Jackson, responded that “the Government denies that at the time of Fisher’s plea and sentencing that it had any knowledge of the facts” leading to Lunsford’s conviction. Jackson also argued that Fisher is not entitled to have his guilty plea overturned because Lunsford’s deception was not about Fisher’s conduct—which, given the guilty plea and other evidence in the case, was accurately portrayed—but about how he learned of it. In addition, Jackson stated that any property that can be identified as Fisher’s that was seized from Lunsford “will be returned to him.”

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, who accepted Fisher’s guilty plea and will decide whether the case ultimately will be overturned, initially sided with the government—though, in his ruling last summer, he noted that “the circumstances giving rise to Fisher’s motion are quite disturbing.” In September, after Kahn was appointed to represent Fisher, Motz changed course and allowed further pleadings on the issue.

The court records in Fisher’s case include a redacted FBI document, dated Oct. 23, 2009, memorializing Lunsford’s admission that he fabricated source information and has a history of run-ins with Fisher and his family. Lunsford said a person other than the source named in case reports “was the real informant on the CORTEZ FISHER case,” the document states, adding that Lunsford’s “association with FISHER’s family goes back to his time in patrol when he was in the Murphy Homes projects” and arrested Fisher and his brother. The brother, the document states, “was killed in the Murphy Homes later after being released from jail.”

Online court records list Lunsford as an officer involved in three state indictments against Fisher between 2000 and 2004, all of which were later shelved by prosecutors. The charges involved drugs, guns, or both.

In 2004, Fisher pleaded guilty in federal court to being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and was sentenced to 36 months in prison. After his release, while still on federal probation, he was charged again based on Lunsford’s ill-founded investigation—triggering, once he pleaded guilty, an additional 12-month sentence.

Now Fisher wants to turn back the clock and make the judicial system reconsider his case in light of Lunsford’s misconduct.

“Mr. Lunsford’s credibility is, at this point, all but non existent,” Kahn wrote. “His conduct was part of a widespread criminal scheme to get rich by falsely implicating and stealing from citizens. His claims about his conduct in this case need to be made in open court, under oath, subject to cross-examination, on the record at an evidentiary hearing before any accurate judgment about the reliability of his statements can be made.”

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