Motion Cites 'Frivolous' Case By Prosecutors
Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt has filed a motion asking a federal judge to award him attorney fees and expenses, arguing that prosecutors waged a "baseless, vexatious, frivolous, bad faith, harassing and stubborn" case against him.
Shelnutt, acquitted last month of charges including money laundering, aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, attempted bribery and making false statements, states in an exhibit to his motion that he paid or must pay several attorneys more than $190,000 and that he incurred some $35,000 in expenses while defending himself.
"The government's entire investigation and prosecution of Mr. Shelnutt evinced an intent by the government to convict Mr. Shelnutt at any cost, including at the cost of letting key players in the 'largest' drug trafficking organization in the history of the Columbus area go free and ignoring evidence and law clearly indicating that Mr. Shelnutt had done nothing wrong," the motion states. "The government's .. prosecution of Mr. Shelnutt has inflicted untold stress, damage and financial loss on Mr. Shelnutt and his family, and has caused immeasurable damage to his formerly thriving law practice and reputation in the community."
Shelnutt's May 21 indictment alleged a connection between Torrance Hill, whom Shelnutt once represented. Hill pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2006 and is serving a 24 1/2-year sentence.
Hill and several others linked to his drug organization testified at Shelnutt's trial.
The Hyde Amendment
In the motion filed Dec. 15, Shelnutt states federal prosecutors had evidence from Hill and others that cleared the attorney of any alleged crime before the trial began. Prosecutors also knew, or should have known, that all 40 of the original charges in the indictment couldn't be backed up by the facts, the motion states.
During the trial, prosecutors tried to prove that Shelnutt was part of Hill's drug organization, and that he told people in the drug ring to bring him money.
Shelnutt states in his motion that prosecutors knew before trial that receiving money for legal fees, even if gained from unlawful activity, isn't money laundering.
In the motion, Shelnutt cites the "Hyde Amendment," enacted in 1997, which enables a judge to award reasonable attorney's fees and expenses to a defendant, "where the court finds that the position of the United States was vexatious, frivolous or in bad faith," the motion states. A judge could also award more than the fees and expenses totalled, Shelnutt states.
"The government lacked any legal or factual basis to charge Mr. Shelnutt with any alleged criminal activity," the motion states. "... This conclusion is inescapable given the government's possession of statements by its key witnesses and alleged coconspirators, Torrance Hill, Latea Davis and Shawn Bunkley admitting, on tape, that Mr. Shelnutt had not engaged in any wrongdoing."
Davis, Hill's former girlfriend, faced federal charges in connection with the drug ring. She was put on pretrial diversion, which is similar to probation without a conviction.
Bunkley pleaded guilty to drug charges, and prosecutors recommended a sentence of three to four years in prison. U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, who presided over Shelnutt's trial, delayed Bunkley's October sentencing until December, saying he wanted to ensure that defendants were held responsible based on their conduct, not on what the government agreed to in a plea agreement.
In December, Land sentenced Bunkley to almost 10 years in prison.
In an exhibit attached to the motion, Shelnutt details the attorneys and amounts he has paid or owes those who represented him.
Shelnutt states that he first learned of the criminal investigation against him in February 2008 and retained defense attorney Frank Martin and paid him $5,000.
Around March 2008, Shelnutt retained Atlanta attorneys David Wolfe and Chris Adams, paying Wolfe $20,000 and Adams around $8,500.
Around March 2009, Shelnutt retained Macon attorney Charles Cox Jr. and paid him almost $7,000 for services and about $255 for costs and expenses.
Also around March 2009, Shelnutt entered an agreement with Gillen Withers & Lake, LLC, the firm that represented him at trial, and agreed to pay $150,000 for their services and pay any expenses.
On behalf of Shelnutt, defense attorney Thomas Withers argues that the government used "improper methods to attempt to produce a wrongful conviction."
"In its desire to convict Mr. Shelnutt at all costs, the government cut Mephistophelean bargains with large-scale drug traffickers," the motion states. "The government looked the other way as its witnesses made false statements against Mr. Shelnutt before grand jury. Fortunately, Mr. Shelnutt prevailed against the threat to his liberty, but not against the threat to his reputation, career, financial well-being, family and relationships, which were damaged almost beyond repair.
"Mr. Shelnutt is entitled to an award of reasonable attorney's fees and expenses of litigation under the Hyde Amendment."
December 22, 2009
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