A Middle District of Georgia judge rebuked prosecutors in the Macon-based U.S. Attorney’s Office this week for their failed prosecution of a prominent local lawyer.
In their “relentless pursuit” of Columbus, Ga., lawyer Mark Shelnutt, the Middle District of Georgia U.S. Attorney’s Office likely worked out a “sweetheart deal” with members of an alleged drug ring to gain their cooperation, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land wrote in a Dec. 14 court order.
“[T]he Court had concerns that the judgment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office may have become clouded by its zeal to bring down a prominent criminal defense attorney,” Land wrote in the order.
Shelnutt represented the alleged drug ring leader, Torrance Hill, who was sentenced in 2007 to 24 years in prison on drug charges. The government later charged Shelnutt in a 40-count indictment alleging money laundering and other offenses. But prosecutors dropped three counts at trial, while a jury acquitted Shelnutt of the remaining charges.
The judge wrote in the order that one of the purported sweetheart deals apparently involved Shawn Bunkley, described by the judge as a “major participant in one of the city’s largest drug conspiracies.” Prosecutors had recommended a sentence of less than 37 months for Bunkley because of his cooperation in the investigation. Land called the proposed sentence “astonishing.” Last week, Bunkley was sentenced to 10 years in prison on drug charges, according to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
Land said he became especially concerned about potential prosecutorial misconduct after an Assistant U.S. Attorney said he’d lied about about an incident in which he attempted to make a secret recording of a Shelnutt.
Prosecutor Jason Ferguson, who is based at the Albany, Ga., branch of the U.S. Attorney’s office, said during a court hearing that he didn’t admit he was wearing a wire in an interview with Shelnutt, even though Shelnutt asked whether he was being recorded. The Assistant U.S. Attorney said he thought he gained approval from his supervisors to make a secret recording, according to court documents.
“The Court was particularly struck by the zeal with which the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued Shelnutt and the Court became concerned when it learned of information suggesting that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had crossed the line from independent prosecutor to law enforcement,” Land wrote in the order.
Middle District acting U.S. Attorney G. F. Pete Peterman III declined to comment to Main Justice, citing office policy that generally prohibits commenting on court orders. Peterman took over the office from Frank Maxwell Wood, a George W. Bush appointee who resigned last summer to run for Georgia attorney general.
Wood, who led the office at the early stages of the drug ring prosecutions, told Main Justice that Land’s comments were “very uncalled for.” He said Land lacks the prosecutorial experience necessary to properly comment on how the U.S. Attorney’s office handles its cases. Land spent 16 years in private practice in Columbus, Ga., before he joined the court in the first year of the Bush administration.
“We do what we think is right,” Wood told Main Justice. “But, we don’t work for the judge.”
Land did not name Ferguson or any of the prosecutors involved with the cases in the order.
“The Court derives no satisfaction in its criticism of the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Land wrote in a footnote in the order. He added, “The Court also does not seek to publicly embarrass any of these public servants.”