U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land on Monday aggressively challenged the adequacy of certain evidence presented by the prosecution in the government’s drug and money laundering case against Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt.
During a 90-minute conference with the attorneys on drafting a plan for guiding the jury — called a jury charge — on how to decide the remaining 36 counts of a 40-count indictment, Land pointedly questioned the government’s case.
“Just because an attorney received cash attorney fees and just because they come from drug money, it is not a crime whatsoever,” Land said. “The jury needs to know that.”
The judge continued.
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“Is hiding an attorney fee a federal crime?” Land asked incredulously.
Bourne responded, “I believe it is, your honor.”
The judge hypothesized that a prestigious local firm might have clients willing to pay good money for representation on matters that could sully its reputation. In such a case, the firm might choose to receive its fee in a nontraditional or even hidden manner. This is no crime, the judge said.
“So, a lawyer goes to get a fee, at say a Publix, would that be a crime?” Land asked.
Bourne shot back: “$125,000 in a cardboard box is not a legitimate fee.”
Land was quick to respond.
“If it is a $100,000 fee and he takes it, it is,” Land said, “...What evidence is there he took anything other than a legitimate fee — other than you want the jury to know he took $200,000 and that was a lot of money?”
Convicted drug dealer Torrance “Bookie” Hill, with whom Shelnutt is alleged to have had a connection according to the indictment, testified he paid Shelnutt more than $250,000 in attorney’s fees.
In a taped meeting, Shelnutt told an FBI agent that the going rate for a federal criminal case like Hill’s was about $25,000.Bourne also argued that drug defendants Shawn Bunkley and Hill’s girlfriend Latea Davis testified they gave cash payments to Shelnutt. Bunkley said he paid Shelnutt $125,000 in a box at a Publix parking lot. Davis said she took $14,000 in cash to Shelnutt’s office.
Bourne said the government’s money laundering case against Shelnutt was “circumstantial.”
He pointed out Shelnutt was active in his law firm — Berry, Shelnutt, Hoffman & Day — but was not running fees collected from drug clients through the firm.
“Let’s not convict this man on suspicion,” Land said. “That is my primary concern about this case.”
The government recommended that four counts of the original indictment — witness tampering, two counts of failure to file federal reporting forms for a transaction of more than $10,000, and making false statements to the FBI — be dismissed, and Land agreed.
“You didn’t step away from them out of the goodness of your heart,” he told the prosecutors. “You stepped away from them because you didn’t have evidence.”
Land expressed his concerns Friday when the government rested its case after four days of testimony. He drove the point home Monday after Shelnutt’s defense team put up less than five hours of testimony.
“I am troubled by a lot of this,” Land said, “as I have already indicated.”
Shelnutt spoke with reporters after the hearing. He was asked about Land’s questioning of the government’s case.
“I don’t want to attach too much significance to that,” Shelnutt said.
The jury was dismissed by Land at 2:07 p.m. He gave his instructions to the attorneys outside the jury's presence.
He told jurors to be back in the courtroom at 8 a.m. Tuesday for closing arguments.
Shelnutt won't take the stand
Earlier, Shelnutt told the court he would not testify in his own defense.
It is unconstitutional to draw any inference of guilt from a criminal defendant's refusal to testify on his own behalf.
After dismissing the jury, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land questioned Shelnutt about his decision and asked Shelnutt if it was his decision alone.
"Yes it is your honor," Shelnutt said.
After about a dozen witnesses -- all on Monday -- the defense told Land that it had completed its case.
The final two defense witnesses were Lt. Pamela Brown of the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office and St. Luke United Methodist Church youth minister Mitchell Watts.
Land recessed the trial at 1:30 for the prosecution to get one rebuttal witness to the court room.
The defense renewed its request for acquittal on the remaining 36 counts against Shelnutt. As he did Friday, Land declined to rule until after the jury returns a verdict.
The judge said Friday there would be closing arguments today. It took the government four days to present its case against Shelnutt. The defense took less than five hours.
St. Luke pastors testify
The Rev. Hal Brady, senior pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church, Rev. Cindy Garrard, St. Luke's minister of programs, and Rev. Joe Roberson, former pastor of South Columbus United Methodist and now a district superintendent in Statesboro, Ga. -- all took the witness stand in Shelnutt's defense.
Shelnutt's attorney Craig Gillen, limited the short questioning of three to whether or not his client was "greedy." That prevented the prosecution from expanding its line of questioning during cross examination.
U.S. Attorney Joseph D Newman of Savannah tried to broaden the questioning of Brady, but was stopped by Judge Land.
Brady testified that he had been pastor at St. Luke, the church that the judge also attends, for more than 12 years. He said he had seen Shelnutt represent clients at no charge on a number of occasions. Brady testified Shelnutt represented two boys who had an issue at a church summer camp in Pine Mountain, Brady's daughter during a divorce, a church employee preparing a will and an associate pastor with legal issues.
Newman, standing beside the attorneys lectern, asked Brady if someone "who does something bad" writes the church a check, does it "balance out in a theological sense?"
Land ruled in favor of the defense's objection.
Newman tried again.
"Would it concern you if some of the contributions could be traced back to a Mexican drug cartel?" he asked the pastor.
The defense objected again.
"Restrict to direct," Land ordered the prosecutor.
Newman then ended his questioning.
The judge recessed the trial for lunch shortly after noon. It will start back at 12:45.
Ex-wfie testifies for defense
Chris Shelnutt, the attorney's ex-wife, testified this morning that rumors of an investigation into her then husband were emotionally devastating.
Her testimony came after government prosecutors motioned for three of the 39 charges against Mark Shelnutt to be dismissed.
Chris Shelnutt said her husband was falsely accused by FBI Agent Randy Allen of trying to bribe a witness in late 2007. The accusations hurt his law practice, she said.
"It had a huge affect on him emotionally," she said. "It was devastating - financially, and to him, emotionally."
From that point on, Mark Shelnutt wondered what other action he might face from the government. "They already falsely accused him," Chris Shelnutt testified. "When were they going to stop? They were doing their best to ruin his career. There were rumors constantly that he was under investigation. Clients were told that they couldn't hire Mark because he was under investigation. It didn't seem like these people were going to give up until his life was in shambles. I can't describe how hard it was to see Mark's life fall apart."
Chris Shelnutt said she and her husband kept cash at the house. They called it "the kitty," she testified. It built up from the sale of his baseball cards and other memorabilia collection and money Mark Shelnutt brought home from work. Those deposits are part of the government's money laundering charges.
Much of the cross examination centered on the "kitty fund."
Chris Shelnutt said there were two places where this money was kept. One was a safe, the other in a wood box in a chest at the foot of their bed.
Prosecutor David Stewart asked her how much money was in the box at any given time.
"I am not sure," she said. " A couple of thousand at the very most."
When she needed money to cover household expenses, Chris Shelnutt said she would get money out of the box and deposit it into her CB&T checking account.
The safe was in a closet in their bathroom. Chris Shelnutt said her husband put money in it. She testified she did not know how much was in the safe.
"He would take things out of his pocket and go to the safe," she testified.
She never had the combination to the safe, she told the jury, but said she may have seen it once.
"If I saw it, I promptly forgot it," she said.
Cash from that stash was deposited into Chris Shelnutt's bank account from 2003-2007.
She also painted a picture of a couple that was active in St. Luke United Methodist Church, where they have been members since 1989. From 2004 to 2007, the couple gave the church more than $52,000, Chris Shelnutt testified.
But they did more in the church than just donate money. She told of how they came to host the staff Christmas party. They had the party catered and took the planning of the party from the female staff of the church, she said.
"We didn't want the kitchen staff and custodial staff cleaning up for their own Christmas party," she testified.
Chris and Mark Shelnutt's divorce was final on May 21 of this year, the same day he was indicted. He has since married a former secretary in his office, Mollie Robinson Shelnutt.
Land dismisses three more counts
The second week of the Shelnutt trial started with Land dismissing three more charges against the Columbus attorney.
Lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne Jr. asked the judge to dismiss two counts of failure to file form 8300 and one count of making false statements.
Shelnutt was charged in May in a 40-count indictment that included charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, bribery, witness tampering and making false statements. The indictment centered on Shelnutt's connection to the Torrance "Bookie" Hill drug ring that was taken down by federal agents in 2005 and 2006.
The prosecution rested late Friday and asked the judge to dismiss the witness tampering, which he did. Before the jury was brought into the court room this morning, Bourne asked Land to dismiss three more counts.
The most serious charges, the conspiracy to distribute cocaine and money laundering, remain as Shelnutt's defense team begins to present its case.