A federal jury on Wednesday acquitted a Columbus, Ga., criminal defense lawyer on all counts of a money laundering and drug conspiracy indictment that had also charged him with the attempted bribery of an Assistant U.S. Attorney.
After eight days of testimony and 12 hours of deliberation over two days, the jury found J. Mark Shelnutt not guilty, discrediting a two-year investigation of Shelnutt by the local office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and federal prosecutors in the state's Middle and Southern Districts.
The case had centered on Shelnutt's acceptance of cash legal fees from Columbus drug trafficker and long-time client, Torrance "Bookie" Hill and other members of Hill's drug ring that were generated by Hill's illegal drug trade.
The trial occurred two weeks after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated that lawyers who accept legal fees derived from criminal activities to pay for a criminal defense are not committing a crime, a ruling that prompted growing concern about the prosecution by U.S. District Court Judge Clay D. Land.
On Tuesday, Land informed prosecutors that their closing argument may have left jurors with the false impression that collecting legal fees in cash -- even if the money was stored in desk drawers, deposit boxes and safes rather than banked -- was not a federal crime.
"If it is not a federal crime for a legitimate fee to come from drug money, it cannot be a crime to conceal a legitimate fee," said Land. "The fact that Mr. Shelnutt may have concealed a legitimate attorney fee is not a federal crime."
After Shelnutt's acquittal, Thomas A. "Tom" Withers, one of Shelnutt's attorneys, said Wednesday, "I think justice was done. Mark always trusted in the system and had faith that the good people of Columbus community would hear the evidence and do the right thing and they did.
"Mark was thankful to have the ability to address the rumor and innuendo from the investigation in a court where the sanitizing light of the courtroom could be shed on the case and on the investigation," Withers added.
Defense co-counsel Craig A. Gillen said, "We are all extremely happy and relieved that Mark's two-year nightmare is finally over, that after two years of facing rumors and innuendo and whispers in the shadows he had his day in court. And the jury spoke with a very clear voice."
But, Gillen added, "The larger picture of the government's theory of the case is very concerning. When boiled to its essence, the government's theory essentially was that receiving funds for legitimate attorneys fees, even though they were from an unlawful source, was somehow wrong or illegal. ... This was an important victory for all of us who do criminal defense work. The issues in this case transcend Mark's case."
The federal appellate ruling, he said, played a significant role in the case and Shelnutt's ultimate acquittal. Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph D. Newman of Georgia's Southern District, who sat at the prosecution table with Assistant U.S. Attorney David M. Stewart and special prosecutor Carlton R. Bourne Jr. throughout the trial, said after the verdict Wednesday, "Department of Justice protocol is to say we accept the verdict, and we do."
Asked if federal prosecutors would have done anything differently, Newman said, "Absolutely not."
Edward J. Tarver, who was sworn in last week as the Southern District's U.S. Attorney, said, "We certainly stand by the verdict that was rendered by the jury. ... The only thing I am really aware of is how hard prosecutors worked on the matter. They did the best they could, and the jury made its decision. We will abide by that decision."
Southern District prosecutors were appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington to prosecute Shelnutt after lawyers with the U.S. Attorney's office in the Middle District, which includes Columbus, recused, in part because Shelnutt was accused of attempting to bribe a Middle District Assistant U.S. Attorney.