When the Government Won't Give Up

Last year, Georgia criminal defense attorney Mark Shelnutt was acquitted on charges of conspiring to launder money, 31 counts of money laundering, aiding and abetting a drug conspiracy, lying to federal agents, intimidating a grand jury witness, failing to report cash transactions over $10,000 and the attempted bribery of a federal prosecutor. He then sued the Government under the Hyde Act to recover his attorneys' fees.

Law enforcement didn't give up. Now, Georgia authorities have arrested him. The charges: eight felony counts of drug distribution. What did he do? Over a two month period, he gave 11 prescription pills to a long time friend, who happened to be working as a government informant. One percocet, 8 zanax and 2 hydrocodone pills, on 7 separate occasions.


"My understanding is that I've been charged with giving my lawfully prescribed medication, usually a single pill, to her six times over the past 2 1/2 months," often over lunch, he said.

...GBI Maj. Rodney Wall, special agent in charge of the GBI's Columbus office, confirmed Thursday that Shelnutt was not selling the prescription pills but "giving them away" and "just to our informant." ....

Under Georgia law, it is a felony to give a prescription pill to anyone, even a friend or family member, even for free.

Savannah attorney Thomas A. Withers, who defended Shelnutt in the federal case but is not currently representing him, said that in his 25 years of experience as both a prosecutor and defense counsel, "I have never seen individual handouts of a controlled substance without payment prosecuted as a case."

In his first case, the Government said Shelnutt committed money laundering by accepting legal fees to represent a drug dealer. It alleged the money came from the dealer's illegal activities. And two weeks before his trial began, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the legality of lawyers accepting illegal proceeds for representation in a criminal case.

The Government tried him anyway. After his acquittal, the trial judge blasted the Government:

U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land, who presided over Shelnutt's trial, later slammed federal prosecutors for making "sweetheart plea deals" with some of Columbus' most notorious drug dealers and suggested that the judgment of federal prosecutors in the office of the U.S. Attorney in Macon "may have become clouded by its zeal to bring down a prominent defense attorney."

And yet, the Government keeps trying to bring Shelnutt down. This time it's state authorities instead of the feds. Eventually, they may succeed. The first trial practically destroyed his law practice, his bid to recover attorneys fees for the last prosecution was denied and he's broke. He may end up having to represent himself this time around, and we all know how that usually turns out.

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    Beg to differ (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 08:44:36 AM EST
    I think the prosecution of this guy for this is ridiculous.

    However, no, not "everybody" gives prescription meds to friends because it's a really bad idea.  You have no idea what your friend's medical problems and issues are, and most of these are powerful drugs.

    Even more importantly, if somebody has symptoms bad enough to need (or think they need) these pills, they need to get medical advice to diagnose the problem.

    Covering up symptoms can lead to a delay in seeking real treatment, and that can mean the difference between a condition or illness that's easily treated early on but a major health problem if it's allowed to go on.  That nasty cold with a bad cough, for just one example, could actually be whooping cough or, God forbid but it's becoming more common, even TB.

    Giving a pill or two to a friend shouldn't be a criminal offense, but it's extraordinarily bad judgment.

    I wish that our medical system (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:09:15 AM EST
    worked in an effective manner.  Last I heard nine children had died of whooping cough in California.  Our system is set up to not thoroughly diagnose anything at this time.  At this point I would say that sharing meds is not the problme, and if we had a functioning health system there would be much less sharing of any meds.  Nobody would need to.  You could get an appointment at an appropriate time, one you could afford, and you could afford your prescriptions too.

    It's worse than that (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by TomStewart on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 12:05:59 PM EST
    Because of the unsubstantiated fears about vaccines (pushed by great scientists like Jenny McCarthy) more parents aren't giving their kids shots, so diseases like pertussis (whooping cough) that were nearly eliminated, are making a big comeback.

    Whooping cough is a cyclical illness (none / 0) (#35)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 11:56:53 AM EST
    Whooping cough is a cyclical illness that peaks in number of infections every five years.

    Symptoms are similar to the common cold, making it a challenge to diagnose, which in turn makes it difficult for officials to determine if the worst has passed, said Dr. Gil Chavez, an epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health.

    All of the whooping cough-related deaths in California occurred in babies too young to be fully immunized against the illness, which is why parents and caretakers are being urged to get booster shots.

    Typically, babies are given a series of vaccinations, then receive booster shots between ages 4 and 6 and again after age 10.

    You're right (none / 0) (#27)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 08:06:40 PM EST
    and no, it's not "the problem" by any means.  But it is, I say again, extraordinarily bad judgment.

    I just saw on ABC News this evening coincidentally a story about the DEAs "prescription drug give-back" program where theyo're encouraging people to clean out their medicine cabinets of old stuff and bring it in for them to destroy, about several cases of people who DIED because a "friend" gave them pills to take for some problem.  One of them was a teenager who was already taking painkillers for something and the ones his "friend" gave him put him over the top and he died from an overdose.

    We laymen have no business diagnosing and treating our friends with our spare pills.  Bad enough we do it for ourselves.

    And FWIW, back in the good old days when doctors made house calls and appointments were much easier to get, people still didn't want to bother going to the doctor.  I don't think we can blame this particular problem on the current horrible state of our health care system.


    I wonder how many people know (none / 0) (#20)
    by nycstray on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 12:10:15 PM EST
    it's a criminal offense? I would have not thought it was a felony . . . .

    I guess this means that (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by Anne on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:04:21 AM EST
    Georgia has essentially solved its crime problems, given that they now have the time and resources to go after this guy with a vengeance...

    Great word, "vengeance;" they really want this guy bad, don't they?  And if it looks like that to us, I imagine it's exponentially worse for him, which kind of makes his "sure, have a pill" thing extraordinarily stupid - even if, as we all know, it happens all the time, with no intent on anyone's part to profit from it or do harm.

    It's true that giving prescription medication to someone else isn't the smartest thing to do - you don't know how that person will react, or what might be going on that needs attention - but I don't think what this guy did rises to the level the state has taken it; yeah, I get that it's a felony, but I also understand that it's a judgment call.  And the judgment of the powers-that-be in Georgia was apparently, "we're gonna get this guy if it's the last thing we do."

    This guy has no friends in Georgia, he can't trust anyone, and if he can get through this without ending up in jail, he should make immediate plans to relocate - assuming Georgia doesn't find some way to impose a travel ban on him.

    Local law enforcement agencies (none / 0) (#13)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:30:46 AM EST
    in the South seem to be extraordinarily corrupt and don't like being held to any standard other than the one of their own daily making.  I am reminded of how the local Magistrate acted toward my own dog difficulty and about how hiring an attorney who is known to appeal corrupt rulings to higher courts is equated with being a bully.  It seemed to me that they also considered wasting precious time and resources on attempting to find me guilty even though the ruling would easily be overturned on appeal according to my attorney.

    Local LEA in the South.... (none / 0) (#17)
    by Rojas on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 11:03:27 AM EST
    For some perspective you may choose to review the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series 'Win at All Costs'.
    If you have the stomach to sift through all ten parts you may find the DOJ's response informative givin the position and responsibilities that person now has.

    LE Agency corruption is a symptom... (none / 0) (#22)
    by Yes2Truth on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 01:35:41 PM EST

    of the real problem: unjust laws.

    Friends don't give friends (5.00 / 3) (#21)
    by Cream City on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 12:26:00 PM EST
    pills, per what gyfalcon said, unless they have medical degrees.

    I learned this as a pallbearer in high school for a classmate who was given a leftover pill, an antibiotic, by a family member.  

    My classmate was an early canary in the coal mine for many of us who now are highly allergic to standard antibiotics.  Even those of us who took them safely for years -- until the first reaction.  (Fortunately for me, I got to the hospital in time -- and I was pregnant at the time.  Fortunately, my daughter survived.  Unfortunately, she suffered the same reaction in the womb, which led to complications ever since, including the same allergy and worries and need for constant monitoring even of prescriptions given us, when medical practitioners ignore the warnings on our files.)

    All that said, the persecution by Georgia in this case is absurd -- as are many laws about this in many states that end up in persecution even of kids in schools.  Terror is not the way to teach people to be smarter about powerful medications -- and that any medication, even over the counter, can cause powerful reactions in some people.

    Points taken gang... (none / 0) (#33)
    by kdog on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 09:35:15 AM EST
    but I was thinking more along the lines and zanies, 'dins, and 'cets...not stuff like antibiotics or highly specialized meds for very specific conditions.

    Like say your friend has a toothache, you've got a couple left over vicodins from your back surgery or whatever...your friend is in serious pain and can't see the dentist till tomm.  I find it hard to believe anybody would refuse to help their friend out with a 'din to get through the night.

    Sharing meds can be safe or not so safe...but never a crime, thats insane.


    prosecutorial Vindictiveness (none / 0) (#1)
    by kgoudy on Sat Sep 25, 2010 at 11:26:45 PM EST
    What can we do to help?

    You can help by (5.00 / 1) (#29)
    by John31909 on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:28:37 PM EST
    contacting AG Thurbert Baker, Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue and any other elected leader about this persecution. I will be contacting anyone remotely involved with government including canditates running for office. Will the State begin conducting sting operations on whether our grass is too tall and also a violation of local code. When they arrest us, will they have the media present to record our shame and humiliation?

    Friends, in the interest of full-disclosure, I will admit to you that my politics are decidedly RIGHT. However, I think we can agree that this is alarming. If the allegations are true, then I will acknowledge the legal breach. However, is this really where we need to focus our law enforcement time?

    This should scare the hell out of every defense attorney in America. Mark Shelnutt did his job too well. It is obvious he frustrated the authorities to the point that he has to be eliminated at all costs. The earlier persecution was defeated. Over 40 counts to begin and finally acquited on the 36 remaining. Not enough to have cost the man hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend against BS charges, now he has to do it again for what amounts to legal minutiae.

    Surely, defense attorneys have many client who are "unseemly", if these people can not get an effective defense then neither can more "seemly" citizens. The type of persecution directly undermines ANY accused's due process rights.


    Well, (none / 0) (#2)
    by Ga6thDem on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 06:21:39 AM EST
    that's GA for you. We have 10% unemployment and we're chasing down this guy giving his friend a pill a month.

    that would seem to be (none / 0) (#4)
    by cpinva on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 07:29:43 AM EST
    a questionable use of scarce, allocable resources.

    Not at all... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 07:41:32 AM EST
    resources are scarce when somebody needs a job, something to eat, a place to live..

    But when there is an empty cot in a prison, or a backwards country to occupy, or simply a defense attorney you want outta the way...sh*t sell some prisoners kidneys if you have to and get 'er done!  


    Some friend (none / 0) (#6)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 08:32:08 AM EST

    P.S. how does someone become (none / 0) (#7)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 08:36:37 AM EST
    a government informant?  Where do you apply, who do you call?  What do you say?  I'm bored with my life and I'm sick of making friends and influencing people?

    Most often, (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:59:11 AM EST
    it's someone who gets busted for a drug offense and the cops say, give us three people and set them up in a drug deal while you wear a wire, and we won't file charges against you. They do this at the time of arrest, before the person speaks to an attorney, while they're completely freaked out about being busted.

    Alternatively, they'll tell the busted person, help us and we'll make your cooperation known to the DA and things will likely go better for you.

    If it's scenario number one, the DA never learns about it because the cops never turn it over for prosecution, unless the person backs out.

    Since this was a long time friend of the lawyer's, I assume (but am speculating) she got in trouble and was working her way out. Whether they specifically asked her to get the lawyer as opposed to whether it was her idea, I couldn't guess at this point.


    Thanks Jeralyn (none / 0) (#16)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 10:10:52 AM EST
    For a good description of how these things get set up.

    "You probably heard (none / 0) (#24)
    by dead dancer on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 05:43:04 PM EST
    we ain't in the prisoner taking business.

    We're in the killing Nazi business, and cousin,
    business is a boomin."

    The whole bag three and trade one in for three more reminded me of that line from "Inglorious Bastards".

    Prison nation; it's a job


    Sometimes they (none / 0) (#9)
    by Rojas on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:00:01 AM EST
    arrest your child... and you fight any way you can.
    Most people sell out for a lot less.

    Or the police will threaten (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by Peter G on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 01:50:02 PM EST
    to go to Child Protective Services and have the arrestee's children taken away unless she (usually it's "she" in these cases) "cooperates."  This particular tactic is disturbingly common in Philadelphia.

    That's terrible (none / 0) (#12)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:15:21 AM EST
    So if you work for them they'll go softer on your kid?

    Sure (none / 0) (#14)
    by Rojas on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:46:26 AM EST
    There are profession informants. People who make a good living as a paid informant. But the typical informant is trading their freedom or the freedom of someone they love in these deals.

    trading for (none / 0) (#26)
    by Rojas on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 07:58:00 PM EST
     informant is trading for their freedom or for the freedom of someone they love in these deals.

    Yes, if the kid has "exposure," (none / 0) (#25)
    by Peter G on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 06:48:10 PM EST
    as we criminal defense lawyers say (the situation posited by Rojas @#9). It's also done to get a husband/boyfriend to cooperate and get charges dropped against his wife/girlfriend (whom he has usually gotten into this mess with some sort of peripheral but punishable involvement).  In the situation I described (@#23), the cop's threat is usually pure bluff -- but nonetheless terrifying to, and therefore effective with, the arrested parent (i.e., mother).

    Some Friend (none / 0) (#18)
    by daring grace on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 11:49:16 AM EST
    Yeah, Linda Tripp came to mind as I read this...

    The day the earth stood still (none / 0) (#32)
    by Rojas on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 07:48:15 AM EST
    If you remember Ms. Tripp then you may recall U.S. v. Singleton. Perhaps not by name, as such word associations are the typical purview of members of the bar.
    But I remember it. It arrived with the dire predictions of doom  associated with a plague of biblical proportions. All the usual suspects lined up to warn us that life as we know it would cease if this abomination were allowed to stand. Condemnation of the ruling from the so-called liberals (send 'em your cash) was swift. The Boxers, Bidens, Clintons, Fiensteins, Holders, Renos and Schumers had grown so accustomed to purchasing injustice that they simply could not fathom a DOJ that did not trade in sworn testimony like it was a simple commodity to be picked up on isle five at WalMart.  

    But for a brief moment members of an independent Judiciary actually placed themselves in the gears of the machine.

    "Whoever . . . directly or indirectly, gives, offers or promises anything of value to any person, for or because of the testimony under oath or affirmation given or to be given by such person as a witness upon a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, before any court . . . authorized by the laws of the United States to hear evidence or take testimony . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both."

    They held that this simple and straight forward standard applied to prosecutors....
    and for a few days, the earth stood still.


    Wow (none / 0) (#28)
    by squeaky on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 09:00:25 PM EST
    With all the horror here about giving someone your prescription, you would think that attempted murder should be the crime...

    Deaths from prescription drugs administered by a doctor far far outweigh deaths by street drugs and prescription drugs given to a friend, as in the case above.

    Nonsense. (5.00 / 1) (#34)
    by Cream City on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 11:30:49 AM EST
    That discussion here is about stupidity -- not a crime, no more than are hyperbolic comments.

    Really? (none / 0) (#36)
    by squeaky on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 12:54:05 PM EST
    Oh, I see. So all the bedwetting about people like Mark Shelnutt giving a friend some prescription drugs is all OT?

    GOod to know.

    Thanks for clearing that up.


    The distinction that CC focuses on (none / 0) (#37)
    by Peter G on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 05:52:02 PM EST
    is a really important reminder -- not all bad behavior should be criminal. Conversely, to say something shouldn't be criminal does not suggest that you approve of the conduct.  I don't think that anyone who disagreed with KDog's original comment about sharing prescription drugs with a friend disputed his point that it shouldn't be treated -- or at least not in this case -- as a form of felony drug distribution.  The point of disagreement was that sharing of prescription drugs by non-professionals -- who don't know the medical history, allergies, other medications being taken, etc., of the person receiving the shared and non-prescribed drug -- is in fact much more dangerous and risky than KDog seemed to suggest.  It does not follow from this fact that the act should be a crime at all, much less a serious crime.

    Mark Shelnutt Target of Vendetta (none / 0) (#38)
    by leilac on Tue Oct 19, 2010 at 05:48:50 AM EST
    Mark Shelnutt is the target of selective prosecution in order to further a personal vendetta against him as a defense attorney.  Go to helpmarkshelnutt.com for more information.