Nearly 10 hours after jurors reported to the federal courthouse in Columbus, a jury was seated in the federal corruption trial of Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt.
The panel of seven men and five women was chosen just before 6:30 p.m. after a day of questioning by U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land and prosecutors and attorneys representing Shelnutt. The panel includes six whites, five blacks and one Asian.
Shelnutt is accused of aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and attempted bribery. The judge hopes to have a jury seated by the end of the day.
If convicted of the cocaine distribution charge alone, he faces 10 years to life in prison. The case was brought after numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies investigated Shelnutt's connection to the drug ring led by convicted dealer Torrance Hill, who is currently serving more than 24 years in prison.
Testimony will begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday. There was about two hours of individual questioning before the jury was picked.
In addition to the 12 jurors, there are four alternates, three women and one man.
The judge told perspective jurors he expected the trial to last about two weeks. The prosecution will present its case first.
Questioning of potential jurors continued late this afternoon in the federal corruption trial of Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt.
U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land wrapped up questioning of the jurors as a group about 3:45 p.m. The judge and attorneys on both sides then moved to a third-floor courtroom where individual questioning began. Potential jurors were asked about possible bias, what they knew about the case and how they knew it.
Shelnutt was in the courtroom as the jurors were questioned individually.
One potential juror, a man from Cusseta, was asked if he had read about it. He said, “No, I don’t read newspapers, but I might have seen something on the Internet.”
One woman said her husband was a Columbus Police officer. She was asked if she talked to him about it and she said, “We don’t discuss his work.”
The judge dismissed a woman from Cusseta because she did not have reliable transportation.
A man who said he got his information from the Ledger-Enquirer and from AM-540 was dismissed when he told the judge he has already formed an opinion. He said that when he read that Shelnutt had been indicted, the first thing that popped into his head was that “he had to have done it.”
Land gave no indication how late jury questioning would continue this evening.
Jury candidates not named
Earlier today. the pool of about 120 possible jurors from about a 10-county area were questioned by Land for more than two hours as the judge and attorneys tried to find possible conflicts of interest or those who could not render a fair verdict. Many of those who were dismissed were because of medical reasons and they are full-time students.
One of the questions put to the potential jurors was if they knew Shelnutt. A number of them did, including four who knew him because they attend the same Columbus church -- St. Luke United Methodist, which is less than a block from the courthouse where Shelnutt's fate will be decided.
Those in the jury pool were described only by number and not name.
One woman said she knew Shelnutt because he is "a prominent member of my church." She said he has also been a motivational speaker at a high school graduation event for her daughter.
Land asked if she could be fair in judging Shelnutt.
"It might be uncomfortable, but I think I could do it," she said.
Three white males said they knew Shelnutt from church, which prompted Land to remark, "We must have the St. Luke congregation in the jury pool." The judge said the four members in the pool spoke to the size of the church.
There was a Methodist minister in the pool, who said he knew Shelnutt from his role in working with other United Methodist churches in the district.
One 23-year-old man said he knew Shelnutt's son and told the judge he could not be impartial.
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 friend's list," then asked the man if he could be fair.
"No sir, not for $20,000," the potential juror said.
There were three members of the panel who either been represented by Shelnutt or had immediate family members represented by him.
Another 37 said they either had been in law enforcement or had close friends or relatives in law enforcement.
Right before a 1 p.m. lunch break, Land read the 40-count indictment to the potential jurors, who packed the second floor of the courtroom. That took 22 minutes.
A list of potential witnesses was also read to see if anyone in the panel knew them.
Jury selection begins
Walking alone, Shelnutt entered the federal courthouse on 12th Street about 8. He was confident as he spoke to a Ledger-Enquirer reporter.
"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. "... I have represented so many people and been with the families at this point where the adrenaline is pumping," Shelnutt said. "To see it from this side is a different perspective."
Shelnutt is represented by Thomas A. Withers of Savannah and Craig Gillen of Atlanta.
"One of the things that has been different is I have always been a lawyer who tells his client to let us handle the strategy," Shelnutt said. "I'm trying to be a good client."
About 120 prospective jurors began entering the courthouse before 8. Many of them were carrying their jury summons in their hands as they walked up the steps to the three-story building.
By 8:30, Shelnutt and his defense team were seated in the Judge Clay Land's courtroom as prospective jurors were led to their seats. The check-in process was completed about 9:15. Shortly after that jurors were shown a 20-minute film about what was expected of them.
On the tape, Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts told the perspective jurors their "role is vital" is the justice process.
After the tape, jurors were given a bathroom break before Land came into the courtroom. The remainder of the morning will be devoted to trimming the number down to a 12-person jury and four alternates.
Shelnutt has been under a cloud of investigation for a couple of years. He said he welcomed the start of the trial.
"I have been looking forward to this day for years," he said.