U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land is continuing his harsh criticism for the U.S. attorneys in the failed prosecution of Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt.
In a 19-page order outlining his decision for increasing the sentence for convicted drug dealer Shawn Bunkley, Land questioned the government’s prosecution of Shelnutt, who was acquitted last month by a federal jury on a litany of cocaine, money laundering, bribery and witness tampering charges.
Bunkley was a key player in the Torrance Hill drug organization. Land sentenced Bunkley last week to almost 10 years in prison, more than twice what prosecutors recommended after Bunkley cooperated in the Shelnutt case. Hill, who was sentenced by Land in 2007, is serving 24 years in federal prison.
“The Court was particularly struck by the zeal with which the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued Shelnutt and the Court became concerned when it learned of information suggesting that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had crossed the line from independent prosecutor to law enforcement,” Land wrote.
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Land pointed to the actions of an assistant U.S. attorney who wore a hidden wire and recorded an interview with Shelnutt. When Shelnutt asked the prosecutor if he was recording it, the U.S. attorney lied.
In a pretrial hearing and in the Shelnutt trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Ferguson of the Middle District of Georgia Office based in Albany testified he did not tell Shelnutt the truth when Shelnutt asked him if he was wearing a recording device.
Ferguson declined to comment Thursday, referring all questions to the Middle District’s Macon office.
In his order, Land made it clear why he was not naming those involved in the Shelnutt and Bunkley prosecutions.
“The court derives no satisfaction in the criticism of the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Land wrote in a footnote to the order. “... The court does not seek to publicly embarrass any of the public servants, and therefore, the court does not name them in this order.”
Land also questioned the deals that some of the defendants received from the U.S. attorneys in exchange for testimony against Shelnutt.
“... The Court became concerned that the focus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office was on getting a high-profile lawyer and negotiating sweetheart plea deals with the actual drug dealers to accomplish that,” Land wrote.
The “defendant’s deal was not the only sweetheart deal in the various cases arising from this massive conspiracy,” Land wrote.
Hill’s girlfriend Latea Davis and his cousin Choici Lawrence, both charged in the conspiracy, were “let off with nothing more than pretrial diversion,” Land noted.
Land, who was critical of the prosecution in Bunkley’s sentencing hearing last Thursday, said he issued the written order, in part because “no party in this case will likely file a brief in support of the Court’s sentence.”
Land said his reason for increasing Bunkley’s sentence was the defendant’s own testimony that he was accountable for at least 138 kilograms of cocaine, which would mandate a greater sentence than the government was recommending.
Shelnutt said he was pleased with Land’s comments.
“I think it speaks for itself,” Shelnutt said. “I am pleased that the truth of what motivated this prosecution is coming to light,” Shelnutt said.
Joseph D. Newman, the first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia who led the team that prosecuted Shelnutt, declined to comment on Land’s order.
“I have two words, no comment,” Newman said.
G.F. Peterman III, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia based in Macon, also declined to comment. Peterman’s office prosecuted Bunkley.
“We do not comment on judicial orders,” Peterman said.