Three weeks before the feds took Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt to trial on a 40-count indictment alleging money laundering and drug charges, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that should have made prosecutors re-evaluate their case, local lawyers said Wednesday.
In that October ruling, the court said Florida defense attorneys representing a Colombian drug lord could not be charged with laundering drug money for their fees because the law against money laundering excludes “any transaction necessary to preserve a person’s right to representation as guaranteed by the sixth amendment to the Constitution.”
Shelnutt was accused of taking large cash payments from convicted Columbus drug dealer Torrance Hill’s cocaine operation as fees for representing Hill.
“Given the recent 11th Circuit rulings on money laundering, I was surprised that the government continued with the case,” said Page Pate, who represented Muscogee County District Attorney Julia Slater when she was called before a grand jury in the Shelnutt case.
Pate was not surprised at Shelnutt’s acquittal, and thought the government hurt its case by the sheer volume of charges — 40 initially, and 36 that went to the jury.
“Whenever you overcharge a case it makes all of your allegations much more difficult to prove,” he said. “Because if the jury doesn’t believe the big charges, they’re much less likely to believe the little charges. You lose credibility.”
Though Pate had expected Shelnutt to walk out of the federal courthouse a free man, he wasn’t sure the jury’s verdict would be what set him free. U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land could have made that decision.
“You never know what a jury’s going to do,” he said. “But given the tone of the case and the way the evidence was presented, I’m not surprised. Also, given Judge Land’s comments, it certainly seems that he was considering a directed verdict if the jury had convicted.”In instructing the jury, Land expressly stated that it was not illegal for an attorney to accept as his fee cash payments from illegal drug sales.
Frank Martin, a veteran in criminal defense, also said prosecutors should have rethought their approach.
“They obviously didn’t take time to re-evaluate,” Martin said. “And then they were told that during the trial, when Judge Land expressed some concerns…. Perhaps they should have stepped back and tried to evaluate whether or not they really had as strong a case as they thought they had, given those recent developments, but they didn’t seem deterred by that.”
Martin is now a partner with his son, John. John Martin said prosecutors pursued Shelnutt “on quite a sweeping indictment, but at the end of the day, apparently, they couldn’t substantiate any of it.”
Said Columbus attorney Richard Hagler: “I don’t think there’s any question that they overcharged him, and I think it cheapened any counts that might have had some legitimacy to them. I had commented when I first saw the indictment that I thought they’d overdone the indictment — that it was not well done and not well thought out.”
Hagler said he followed the case through press reports and what visitors to the courtroom told him, and the jury’s verdict was “not completely unexpected.” He added: “Based on what was reported and what was reported to me, the evidence presented by the government was not nearly what had been expected.”
Shelnutt’s acquittal shows the jury also recognized that lack of evidence, he said: “You’re always glad when the justice system prevails, and when somebody does get a fair day in court.”
Attorney Shevon Thomas of Columbus agreed, saying, “I served in the Army for 20 years, and days like these are days that I’m proud of my military service. The system works.” The jury clearly saw the government couldn’t prove its case, he said: “To me that’s the epitome that the system works.”
He added: “Mark is a friend of mine. I’ve called Mark and I told him I’m praying for him, and I do believe in the system, and I believe that the system works. And you know, I’m just happy for him and his family right now.”
Executive Editor Ben Holden contributed to this report.