A man whose punishment for writing bad checks was denounced by the NAACP will have to serve only a fraction of the 30-year term that had originally been imposed, a panel of Baltimore County judges ruled yesterday.
Andrew Maurice Fisher, who had no previous convictions before being found guilty in August of writing bad checks for security equipment for his apartment, was sentenced yesterday to serve 18 months behind bars.
"It's very unusual that a three-judge panel would reduce a sentence that much, but it was a very atypical case for a lot of different reasons," said David B. Irwin, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.
Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh, who is known for handing down tough sentences, sentenced Fisher, 24, to two consecutive 15-year terms for writing two bad checks as payment on more than $20,000 in high-tech security equipment for the Woodlawn apartment he shares with his mother.
The president of Baltimore County's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Patricia Cook Ferguson, denounced that original sentence as possible racial discrimination. She asked the civil rights division of the state attorney general's office to look into the matter.
"It's not only a victory for African-Americans, it's a victory for our system," Ferguson said yesterday when told about the panel's decision.
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said yesterday that although the office does not have jurisdiction over judges, lawyers there have watched the Fisher case with interest.
"It seemed to be a harsh sentence for the crime he was charged with," she said. "Fortunately, Maryland's system has these avenues that you can pursue in re-evaluating a sentence."
Maryland's court system allows defendants who dispute their sentence to appeal it by asking the original judge, another judge or a panel of three judges to review the sentence, Irwin, the defense attorney, said.
The new sentence could be more severe, more lenient or the same as the original, Irwin said, so defendants generally only ask for a new sentence if the first is very harsh.
Yesterday, Circuit Judges Michael J. Finifter, Ruth A. Jakubowski and Mickey J. Norman listened to testimony from Fisher, as well as John and Nancy Fish, the owners of A-1 Security Systems.
The Fishes testified that Fisher gave them a check for $7,500 as a down payment on the equipment. When the check bounced, Fisher "begged and pleaded" with them to continue the work and assured them they he had the money to pay for it, John Fish said.
Fisher then wrote the couple a second check which was also refused by the bank, the Fishes said, adding that their company ultimately received $300 in cash for the $23,000 project.
"To be honest with you, he was a good talker over the phone and so we carried on with the job," John Fish said.
The security system, for an apartment Fisher shares with his mother, included a fingerprint-scanning machine, a custom-built computer worth several thousand dollars, an electronic door-locking system and a 42-inch flat-screen television with surround sound.
Fisher told the judges that he had thought he had enough money in his account to cover the check, but that without his knowledge "somebody stole checks, they ripped checks out of my checkbook" and emptied the account.
Court records show that an Andrew Fisher listed at the same address as the defendant has been sued by mattress, bath installation and two carpet companies.
The panel of judges sentenced Fisher yesterday to two concurrent five-year prison terms, with all but 18 months suspended, and ordered him placed on five years' probation upon his release. They also ordered him to pay $23,000 in restitution to the Fishes and another $4,000 in restitution to another security company.
Fisher's mother, June Fisher, hugged his defense attorney Alvin A. Alston after yesterday's hearing. She said her son was a "naive" young man who had made a mistake but didn't deserve a 30-year sentence.
She said that she would give the equipment, which is still in use, back to the Fishes.
"I'm ready to kick that thing to the curb," she said of the security system.