Trial of Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt begins

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 10, 2009 

The trial of Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt, facing a 40-count federal indictment that alleges money laundering and witness tampering, began Monday.

More than 100 potential jurors crowded into the 12th Street federal courthouse for what turned out to be a 10-hour process of picking the 12-member jury with four alternate jurors. They answered questions about themselves, their connections to Shelnutt’s church and any links they might have to potential witnesses that at times ran like a list of who’s who among St. Luke United Methodist Church, local attorneys and law enforcement.

Possible witnesses include District Attorney Julia Slater, former Muscogee County Sheriff Ralph Johnson, Russell County Sheriff’s Lt. Heath Taylor, Muscogee County Superior Court Senior Judge Bill Smith, senior pastor at St. Luke Hal Brady and St. Luke School Principal Ann McDuffie.

In all, some 80 potential witnesses were listed off for jurors.

“We got a lot of folks from St. Luke’s and a lot of folks with law enforcement,” said U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land when he saw the number of jurors who had connections to the two groups. “That seems to be the demographics of this jury panel.”

Shelnutt was accused in a May indictment of aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and attempted bribery. The indictment alleges a connection between Shelnutt and Torrance Hill, who was once represented by Shelnutt. Hill pleaded guilty in 2006 to drug charges and was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison.

Hill, along with his wife, Tamika Hill, and other defendants once linked by authorities to the largest drug bust in Columbus history also were listed as potential witnesses.

Walking alone Monday, Shelnutt entered the federal courthouse around 8 a.m.

“We’re ready to go,” he said.

Shelnutt, who has been practicing in Columbus since December 1988 and has been an assistant district attorney as well as longtime criminal defense lawyer, said he has been in the downtown courthouse many times.

“This is a different feeling,” he said.

Five women, seven men on jury

Few potential jurors were released from duty before lunch. After answering questions about possible witnesses, Land and the attorneys questioned some jurors individually about the case from media accounts.

“A lot of people have read something about this case from the newspaper,” Land said.

Those individual sessions led to a few more potential jurors being excused. Prosecutors and Shelnutt’s defense team then passed a list of juror names back and forth, crossing out the names of those they didn’t want until both sides ran out of strikes.

What remained at 6:30 p.m. was a five-woman, seven-man jury with four alternate jurors — one man and three women.

The jurors will be sworn at 8 a.m. this morning and opening statements will then begin. Land estimated that the trial could last until Nov. 19.

Staff writer Chuck Williams contributed to this report.

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