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Defense rests in Shelnutt trial; closing arguments today

U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land dismissed three more counts Monday in the federal case against Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt, just hours before his defense attorneys presented their side and rested.

Shelnutt, facing charges including aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering and attempted bribery, told Land he wouldn’t testify in his defense after his team of attorneys called about a dozen witnesses.

Lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne Jr. told Land before the jury entered the courtroom Monday morning that he wanted to dismiss two charges of failing to file proper financial paperwork and one charge of making false statements to the FBI. On Friday, the prosecutor motioned to dismiss a charge of witness tampering. Land granted all the motions, and Shelnutt now faces 36 counts.

The government rested its case Friday after four days of testimony. Shelnutt’s attorneys began their case Monday morning, calling Shelnutt’s ex-wife, Chris, to the stand.

In all, they spent about five hours presenting their case, calling several witnesses from Shelnutt’s church, St. Luke United Methodist Church, as well as a former associate at Shelnutt’s law firm.

At the end of the day, Land reiterated concerns he said he has about the prosecution’s case — concerns he first brought up on Friday after prosecutors rested their case.

Chris Shelnutt

Chris Shelnutt, married to Mark Shelnutt for 19 years, said her divorce was finalized the same day her ex-husband was indicted — May 21. She testified that while married, her husband would bring home cash and put it in a gun safe or a box near their bed. Cash also came from the sale of baseball cards, which Mark Shelnutt had spent thousands of dollars on early in their marriage.

“To have cash at home, that was something Mark grew up with,” she said.

Authorities allege that Shelnutt told members of the Torrance Hill drug organization to bring him money, which Shelnutt then allegedly laundered. Shelnutt’s indictment alleges a connection to Hill, who pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2006 and is serving a 24 1/2-year sentence. Shelnutt once represented Hill.

Cash in the home would accumulate, Chris Shelnutt said, and she had deposited some of it in the bank over the years. In 2003, close to $18,000 was deposited, followed by about $20,000 in 2004.

The couple gave charitable donations between $7,000 and $20,000 each year from 2004 to 2007, Chris Shelnutt testified.

Once the federal investigation into Shelnutt had begun, its toll on her husband was telling, Chris Shelnutt said. “There were rumors constantly that he was under investigation,” she said. “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.”

At some point, FBI Agents Todd Kalish and Randy Allen came to her office last year to give her an opportunity to talk, Chris Shelnutt said. She said she never spoke with government agents, recounting a story about a longtime family friend of hers whom she said was asked by federal prosecutors for information in an investigation. That friend spoke with the investigators and was later arrested.

“I know what they did,” Chris Shelnutt said. “I wouldn’t talk to Mr. Kalish. I wouldn’t trust Mr. Kalish to share what I had said. I wouldn’t do that at all.”

St. Luke witnesses

Defense attorneys called several witnesses affiliated with St. Luke United Methodist Church, including the Rev. Cynthia Cox Garrard and the Rev. Hal Brady. Both testified that Mark Shelnutt had given free legal counsel. The Rev. Joseph Roberson, a Methodist minister, testified that Mark and Chris Shelnutt helped pay for scholarships to a south Columbus children’s center.

James Harris, known as the “Bucket Man” because he would carry around a bucket and wash cars, said Mark Shelnutt helped him buy a $1,200 pickup truck. Afterward, Harris said he washed Shelnutt’s car for free for two or three months, and then Shelnutt resumed paying him.

Other witnesses testified that Mark Shelnutt gave them free tickets to University of Georgia football games and never asked for compensation.

Last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Hyde testified that Shelnutt offered him free Georgia tickets while the Hill case was ongoing. Hyde said he felt like it was an attempt to curry favor.

Rochelle Griffin — the mother of Keith Barber, who was once represented by Mark Shelnutt and is linked to Hill’s drug organization — testified that Shelnutt once disputed testimony by Metro Narcotics Task Force Agent John Memmo at a court hearing. Afterward, she was outside talking to Shelnutt when Memmo approached. She thought the agent was going to assault Shelnutt, she said.

“He came forcibly,” Griffin said of Memmo. “He came angrily. Mr. Shelnutt said, ‘I’m just doing my job.’”

Former associate

Attorney Jennifer Dunlap worked for Shelnutt’s firm for about two years, leaving in February for the Chattahoochee Circuit District Attorney’s Office. She once represented Latea Davis, Hill’s ex-girlfriend who was indicted federally along with several others whom authorities said were linked to Hill’s organization. When the cases were still in state court, Chief Assistant District Attorney Mark Post offered Davis a plea agreement that would have put her in prison for at least 10 years, Dunlap said.

Davis and Choici Lawrence, another person authorities say is connected to Hill, were put by federal prosecutors on pretrial diversion, which is like probation without a conviction.

Dunlap said Shelnutt, who was her boss when she represented Davis, never told her how to handle the case. Chris Samra, an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, disputed that when he was called to testify on Monday by the government.

According to Samra, they were talking about the case when it was still in state court and Dunlap told him, “ ‘Well, you have a boss just like I do. I just do what I’m told. He calls the shots,’ ” Samra said of his conversation.

Attorneys on both sides are expected to give their closing arguments at 8 a.m. today. Jurors will then receive their instructions from the judge and begin deliberations.

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