The civil rights unit of the Maryland attorney general's office is investigating the sentencing of an African-American man with no previous criminal convictions to 30 years in prison for writing bad checks.
Carl O. Snowden, the attorney general's director for civil rights, said yesterday that he is looking into the situation in response to a complaint filed by the Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Describing the sentence of Andrew Maurice Fisher as "blatant discrimination," Pat Ferguson, president of the local NAACP chapter, likened the situation to that of the "Jena 6" case, in which claims of racial discrimination have been made involving the prosecution of a group of black students in Louisiana.
"There are many cases where people have committed murder and got less time," she said. "If this African-American has to do 30 years when no one else had to for similar crimes, it is a sad day for Baltimore County. It's definitely a travesty of justice, and shame on Baltimore County."
Fisher, 24, was convicted in August of two counts of writing $23,500 in bad checks for a high-tech, electronic security system at the apartment he shared with his mother in the Woodlawn area, according to court documents.
The equipment included a biometric card reader that scans fingerprints, a computer worth more than $3,000 and a 42-inch flat-screen television with surround sound, according to a letter sent to the judge by Nancy Fish, the owner of A-1 Security Systems.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh sentenced Fisher to two consecutive 15-year prison terms and ordered him to repay the security company.
An assistant who works in Cavanaugh's chambers said yesterday that it is the judge's policy not to comment on cases he hears.
Fisher had attended classes at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, Snowden said.
Fisher was charged in 2004 with first-degree assault, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, possession of a deadly weapon and malicious destruction of property, charges that were dismissed by Baltimore prosecutors, court records show. An additional charge of second-degree assault that was filed in 2005 also was dismissed, according to court records.
Fisher was charged Aug. 7 with theft of less than $500 and writing bad checks in Anne Arundel County, court records show. That case is pending.
A number of active civil cases filed in Baltimore County District Court list as a defendant Andrew Fisher of the same address where the security system was installed, although it could not be confirmed yesterday whether that Andrew Fisher is the same person serving the 30-year sentence.
A mattress company sued for $2,083, a company called Budget Bath sued for $9,000, and a carpet company sued for $500, according to court records.
Another carpet company was awarded a judgment of $1,753.35 in July, court records show.
In the case for which Fisher was sentenced to 30 years - which was reported this week in The Examiner - he wrote a check to A-1 Security Systems for $7,551 on March 6 after technicians installed the electronic security equipment, according to court records. When the check bounced, Fisher told the security company that he would give the technicians another check from a different account.
The company owner took that check - written March 10 for $7,576 - to the bank, where she was told that the account had been closed, according to records.
Told that he had to pay by money order or a cashier's check, Fisher gave the technician $300 in cash and said he would go to the bank that afternoon to get the remaining $23,244.15, according to court records.
The judge offered to release Fisher if he paid $23,000 in restitution, according to a motion filed by Alvin Alston, an assistant public defender who represented Fisher in his case. Alston asked the judge to correct the "illegal sentence" against Fisher, noting that Maryland's highest court has held that "imprisonment for a lack of financial resources is illegal."
Cavanaugh - who has developed a reputation in his nearly five years on the bench for handing down tough sentences and verbal lashings to defendants convicted in his courtroom of violent crimes and drug dealing - denied Alston's request Sept. 11.
The case is scheduled for a hearing before a three-judge review panel in November.
Cavanaugh sentenced a teenager convicted in the 2004 Randallstown High School shootings to 100 years. He imposed three life terms on a man who orchestrated the killing of a teenager who was choked and set on fire to keep her from testifying in a statutory rape case. And when he sentenced that man's co-defendant, Cavanaugh tacked a life term onto a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, just in case "somewhere down the road some liberals down in Annapolis" water down the meaning of life without parole, the judge said at the time.
Fish, the owner of the security company, said she did not object to the judge's sentence.
"Murderers don't get that," Fish said of the sentence. "But ... the judge saw the type of personality that this guy was. It's not like he was sick or on drugs. He knew exactly what he was doing."
She characterized Fisher's request for a device that scans fingerprints as "very unusual" for a residence. She said Fisher did not indicate why he felt he needed the security system.
Snowden, the attorney general's civil rights director, said Fisher's sentence - compared with those typically given to people with no criminal record who are convicted of writing bad checks - raises questions.
"There's no question that what he did was wrong," Snowden said of Fisher's actions. "The question is whether or not the punishment fit the crime."
Snowden said he is gathering information about the case and about Fisher. The attorney general does not have the authority to change a judge's sentence but could use his office to speak out about the case, Snowden said.
Sun reporter Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.