Mark Shelnutt was hunched over the defense table, his hands tightly clasped.
It was 2:32 Wednesday afternoon.
For almost 15 minutes, Shelnutt sat motionless as he waited on the verdict from the federal jury on 36 drug, money laundering, bribery and false statement charges.
Once in the jury box, the jury foreman handed the verdict form to U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land.
Land thumbed through the document in the quiet courtroom, which was filled with Shelnutt supporters and some of the law enforcement agents who helped build the case against him.
After about 45 seconds, Land acknowledged the form was in order.
Shelnutt, still seated, held the hand of his attorney Tom Withers, a man who passionately argued for more than a week that the U.S. government had wrongly accused and charged Shelnutt of crimes connected to Torrance Hill’s drug organization.
FBI Special Agent Todd Kalish, who investigated Shelnutt, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Hyde, who was named in the attempted bribery charge, sat on the right side of the courtroom. Their faces showed no expression.
At 2:45, Land began to read.
“Count One, conspiracy to launder money,” the judge said. “Not guilty.”
“Count Two, aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Not guilty.”
“Count Five, money laundering. Not guilty.”
Then the judge’s words, cadence and diction took on a lyrical quality. The chorus, time and again, was “Not guilty.”
Thirty six times Land read a charge and followed it with not guilty.
By the time Land was finished, Shelnutt’s supporters, a combination of family and friends, many of them connected to St. Luke United Methodist Church, were cheering.
Land, who had openly questioned the strength of the government’s case since Friday, ordered calm.
“No, no,” the judge said. “Wait until the jury is dismissed.”
As the jury left, Shelnutt turned to his supporters with tears on his face.
“I feel good,” he almost whispered in answer to a question shouted at him.
Minutes later some of Shelnutt’s backers literally danced out of the federal courthouse in downtown Columbus. Then many of them gathered around as Shelnutt and his attorney answered questions from reporters.
Shelnutt said he was overwhelmed.
“I said from the start, we were going to try our case in the courtroom, and that’s what we did,” Shelnutt said. “We believed in the system and those jurors who we wanted to hear our story and we are thankful for them. Justice was done today.”
The government’s case, made by the Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI and IRS, began to unravel last week when Land dismissed a witness tampering charge at the prosecutor’s request. Three more charges — one of making a false statement to federal agents and two of failing to file proper financial forms for transactions of more than $10,000 — were dismissed before the jury got the case Tuesday afternoon.
Patricia Davis of Butler was on the jury.
“We all wanted to make sure we made the right decision,” Davis said as she left the courthouse.
She said the seven men and five women, who deliberated for more than eight hours, had a mix of opinions on every count and had to sort through it.
“Because of the rule of law, we had no choice but to find him not guilty,” Davis said. “The government’s case had a lot of holes in it and it was weak.”
Davis said Shelnutt could have been convicted if the government’s lawyers “had done a better job.”
One juror, who requested anonymity, said Shelnutt was a “guilty man,” even though the jury was bound to let him walk free.
“But he’s a smart man,” the juror said. “Had the government got him on tax evasion, it might have been a different story.”
Withers said the jury did the right thing.
“We trusted the good folks of the community to do justice,” Withers said.
Withers called the courtroom the “great leveler.”
“All that we asked for was a fair jury to listen to the evidence and listen to the law the judge gave them,” Withers said. “I think that is what they did.”
Lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne Jr. was solemn.
“Both sides worked hard; the jury worked hard,” he said. “We accept the verdict and have no further comment.”
Shelnutt has lived under a cloud of suspicion since early 2007.
He was representing Hill, the leader of a drug ring implicated in the largest drug bust in the history of Columbus. Shelnutt helped get Hill out of jail on bond, then Hill was arrested again in connection with a major drug bust in Harris County. He was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in federal prison by Land in 2007.
Shelnutt and members of his former law firm — Berry, Shelnutt, Hoffman & Day — represented a number of the defendants involved in Hill’s drug rings.
The authorities alleged Shelnutt crossed the line from attorney to participant in the conspiracy. The prosecution called convicted drug dealers to the stand to testify against Shelnutt, but never put the law enforcement agents who made the case on the stand.
Shelnutt, also, didn’t take the stand in his own defense, but by the time it was the defense’s turn to present evidence, Land had already said from the bench he had “concerns” about the government’s case.
Time and again, the defense asked the judge to throw out the charges, but Land stuck by his decision to put Shelnutt’s fate in the hands of the jury.
Shelnutt, a former assistant district attorney turned criminal defense attorney, and his lawyers began to rehabilitate Shelnutt’s reputation on the courthouse steps minutes after the verdict.
“Anybody who heard the evidence in this case and has seen what Mark Shelnutt has done in this legal community should be proud and privileged to have him as their lawyer,” said Craig Gillen, one of Shelnutt’s defense attorneys. “I hope with this behind him, his law practice will soar where it should be.”
Shelnutt acknowledged his reputation has taken a beating.
“Being on the front page of the paper every day, not in the best light, isn’t the best advertisement,” Shelnutt said.
Withers described Shelnutt as “a shattered man” in his closing argument.
During the government’s investigation, Shelnutt’s law firm dissolved and his marriage of nearly 20 years fell apart, culminating in a divorce that became final on May 21, the same day he was indicted. His ex-wife, Chris Shelnutt, testified in his defense on Monday that the ordeal “had been devastating to him financially and emotionally.”
Withers was asked where Shelnutt goes from here.
“You are going to have to ask Mark how he will put his life back together,” Withers said.
Shelnutt said he was going to take the next few days to reflect.
“When you go through something like this you learn who your friends are,” Shelnutt said.
That reflection will continue through next week’s Thanksgiving holiday.
“I can’t think of a better holiday than Thanksgiving,” he said. “I am going to take time to give thanks.”
Staff writer Alan Riquelmy contributed to this report.