St. Luke United Methodist Church a common subject in Shelnutt jury questioning

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 10, 2009 

Four of the more than 100 potential jurors in the criminal trial of Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt said they knew Shelnutt because they attended the same church, St. Luke United Methodist Church. A Methodist minister in the pool said he knew of Shelnutt’s leadership role in working with other United Methodist churches in the district.

None of those prospective jurors made it on the final panel of 12 jurors and four alternates.

One woman said she knew Shelnutt because he is “a prominent member of my church.” She said he had also been a motivational speaker at a high school graduation event for her daughter.

U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, who also attends St. Luke, asked if the woman could be fair in judging Shelnutt.

“It might be uncomfortable, but I think I could do it,” she said when questioned in open court.

That woman was later questioned more deeply in front of just the judge and attorneys. Many of those questions focused on the church, one of the largest in Columbus.

“Would you have a hard time believing a member of your church could do something really wrong?” asked lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne.

The woman answered no.

She was later dismissed by Land for cause despite the objections of Shelnutt’s defense attorney Thomas Withers.

In addition to the St. Luke members in the jury pool, there are also a number of St. Luke pastors, employees and members who appeared on a potential witness list that was read to prospective jurors.

It included Senior Pastor Hal Brady, Rev. Cindy Garrard, Rev. Loretta Dunbar, Youth Director Mitch Watts and St. Luke School Principal Ann McDuffie. Rev. Joe Roberson, former pastor at South Columbus United Methodist Church and now district superintendent in Statesboro, Ga., was also on the potential witness list.

One of the questions put to the potential jurors was if they knew Shelnutt.

One 23-year-old man said he knew Shelnutt’s son and told the judge he could not be impartial. He was not selected.

Another man said Shelnutt was an attorney on the other side of a legal matter the man is involved in.

Land commented, “So, you are not on the top of his friends list,” then asked the man if he could be fair.

“No sir, not for $20,000,” the potential juror said. He was not selected.

There were three members of the panel who had either been represented by Shelnutt or had immediate family members represented by him. None of them were picked for the jury.

Another 37 said they either had been in law enforcement or had close friends or relatives in law enforcement.

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