MARK SHELNUTT TRIAL | Hill testimony concludes; jury dismissed for day

The federal drug and corruption trial of Mark Shelnutt recessed for the day after more than three hours of testimony from one of the government's key witnesses.

Tamika Hill, the former wife of Torrence Hill, the convicted drug dealer Shelnutt represented, was the primary witness Tuesday. Shelnutt is accused by the government of being a part of Hill's drug operation and faces a 40-count indictment.

Tamika Hill was questioned for more than two hours by lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne. Much of that time was spent playing portions of video and audio tapes recorded by Tamika Hill as she met with Shelnutt, who was her attorney at the time. She was facing drug charges in Harris County along with other members of Hill's drug ring. Shelnutt had also represented her on 2003 drug charges, where she was convicted under first-time offender status and received no jail time.

In the tapes, recorded in January 2007, Shelnutt was trying to convince her to keep him as his attorney and let him work out a deal for her. At the time, she was already cooperating with federal agents who were building a case against Shelnutt.

Defense attorney Craig Gillen of Atlanta spent much of his time picking apart Hill's role in her former husband's drug enterprise.

He played audio tapes recorded at the Muscogee County Jail when Hill, who was arrested Feb. 7, 2006, appeared to be giving her instructions on where to pick up drug proceeds. The conversations were in a code the two had devised.

Tamika Hill said she paid $40,000 to $45,000 to Atlanta attorney Bruce Harvey. She testified it was cash drug money.

"Have you ever been asked to wear a wire and go see Mr. Harvey?" Gillen asked.

She said no. She also said that Harvey gave her a receipt for her payments to him. She said in payments made to Shelnutt, she received no receipt.

Gillen produced a copy of a receipt and introduced it as evidence. Hill testified she had never seen it.

Opening statements

The prosecution and defense attorneys painted two totally different pictures of Shelnutt in opening statements of the federal criminal trial in Columbus.

Shelnutt "crossed the line," going from attorney to participant in the Hill's drug organization, lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne Jr. told the jury as the highly anticipated trial started in Judge Clay Land's U.S. District Court.

Defense attorney Thomas Withers told the jury of seven men and five women the evidence was going to "shock" them, but not because of any of Shelnutt's actions.

"It is going to shock you because of the lengths the government has gone to get Mark Shelnutt," Withers said.

Bourne took just 17 minutes to lay out a map of the case the government will present against Shelnutt, while Withers spoke for more than an hour challenging all of the 40-count indictment on aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and attempted bribery charges.

Bourne said Shenutt was connected to "the biggest drug dealer Columbus has ever seen."

"People played various roles in roles in his organization," Bourne said. "One such member was Mark Shelnutt. "... He didn't distribute cocaine or weigh cocaine. His role was more subtle than that."

Shelnutt's role, according to Bourne, was to attempt to control those involved in Hill's drug organization, which came crashing down on May 4, 2005 in the largest drug bust in the history of Columbus. More than 484 pounds of cocaine, 2,500 pounds of marijuana and $600,000 in cash were seized by authorities.

"He urged people to stick together and not reveal his role," Bourne said.

The government also contends Shelnutt directed the collection of proceeds from Hill's drug operation.

Withers said the government targeted Shelnutt at the expense of justice to others involved in the drug enterprise.

Withers then told the jury the government's case was built around a cadre of witnesses with criminal backgrounds.

"The government has paid the price of freedom for these witnesses and they are going to put them on the witness stand," Withers said.

Both sides addressed Shelnutt's former legal secretary, Joanne Stickland, who is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution. One of the money laundering charges and the witness tampering charge center around Strickland, who the government claims took $7,000 in cash from Shelnutt, then wrote him a check.

"Why would a lawyer ask a secretary to run some cash through her checking account?" Bourne asked the jury. "Why would you give her a box containing $7,000 in cash and get a check back?"

He repeated the question at the end of his opening statement.

Withers said Strickland changed her testimony before the grand jury, originally saying it was $5,000, but at a later date changing it to $7,000 to reflect what bank records showed. It was a loan to help Strickland pay for her daughter's wedding, Withers said.

He also painted a picture Strickland as a jealous woman trying to get back at her former boss.

"He treated her with care, but that relationship changed in 2008 when Molly Robinson entered the firm in 2008," Withers said. "Molly Robinson is now Mark's wife."

Shelnutt and Robinson were married in September. He and his former wife, Chris, divorced last year.

The trial was scheduled to start at 8 a.m., but was 25 minutes late because several jurors were late reporting to the courthouse. Land admonished the jury, saying the condensed trial schedule, which has it starting early and concluding at 2:30 p.m. each day, is being done for the jury's benefit.

"But we got to get here and get started at 8," Land said.

There were about two dozen people in the courtroom for opening statements, including several of Shelnutt's family members and friends. While waiting for jurors to report, Shelnutt went around to several people in the courtroom and gave them hand shakes and hugs.