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Letter From the Editor: Week Three of the PCA Trial

Opinion

Shortly after I relocated to Colorado for sunshine and dry snow a decade ago, I found myself swept up for jury duty. When it came time for “we, the jury” to decide whether or not the defendant was guilty as charged on several state felony counts, the court gave us “cheat sheets” to guide our deliberations.

Or, at least that’s what we jurors came to call them. Each “cheat sheet” just listed the elements that had to be proven in order for there to be a conviction on each count. This turned jury duty into a sort of scavenger hurt as we all went looking to see whether there was evidence in the record to cover the requirements.

Juror discretion did come into play. For example, a common theft in Colorado becomes a strong-armed robbery if force is used in the crime. Our defendant shoplifted amphetamines from a grocery store pharmacy and ran into a quick but clumsy wrestling match with a store security guard in the parking lot. He fled again just as the guard humorously pulled off the defendant’s muscle shirt.

Did that funny little tussle mean the theft was armed robbery? Questions like that split juries. Guilt or innocence can turn on the smallest details.

Ever since that experience, I’ve had a new appreciation for why prosecutors at trial do what they do. For anyone who does not like the tedious and detailed, criminal trial law is probably not your game.

Tedious detail was on display all this past week in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, where three former Peanut Corporation of American (PCA) executives continue to be on trial.

Samuel Lightsey, the former PCA plant manager at Blakely, GA, has been on the witness stand since Day 10 of the trial — that was one week ago Friday. With only one break last Thursday, Lightsey has testified for about 30 hours and has yet to face cross-examination from the anxious defense attorneys.

He’s told the jury about records that show positive tests for Salmonella, customers being told that positive tests were “inconclusive” instead, and evidence of potentially contaminated water getting into PCA peanut butters and paste.

Since Lightsey reported directly to former PCA owner Stewart Parnell and had plenty of interaction with the two other defendants — PCA’s one-time peanut broker, Michael Parnell, and its former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson — he is the perfect witness for the government to use in placing piles of evidence before the jury.

Whenever the jury begins its count-by-count review of the evidence, they are going to find a lot there to consider.

The size and scope of the government’s case against the former peanut executives remains almost as large as it did in February 2013 when the 76-count indictment was unsealed.

Lightsey was the sole target for only five of the 76 federal felonies. Those were among the counts against him that were terminated in the plea agreement with the government. In exchange for consideration at sentencing, he pleaded guilty to seven felony charges, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, interstate shipments fraud, wire fraud and placing misbranded and adulterated peanut products into interstate commerce.

That means government prosecutors have 71 counts remaining to prove to the federal jury in Albany. Stewart Parnell is charged with 67 federal felonies, Michael Parnell with 43, and Mary Wilkerson with two, both obstruction of justice charges.

Since the indictment was unsealed, it’s been known that the prosecution would be out to show the jury how individual actions of specific defendants with specific lots of peanut butter or paste shipped by specific carriers to precise locations violated the law.

Lightsey’s purpose on the stand has been to enable government prosecutors to get emails, test records, photographs and other documentation entered into the trial record as evidence. There are not many “Perry Mason” moments in this sort of testimony, but it’s probably getting the job done for the prosecution.

The only break from the Lightsey show last week came Thursday morning when the government in quick order called a handful of food safety experts. Included were the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Darcy E. Brillhart, a microbiologist, and Gwendolyn Anderson, the supervisory microbiologist at FDA’s Arkansas regional laboratory.

Brillhart testified about FDA’s inspection of the Blakely plant from Jan. 9 through Feb. 5, 2009, after it was implicated in the Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 people and killed nine. Anderson’s lab returned the positive test results from environmental swabs taken at the plant during the outbreak investigation.

Also testifying Thursday was Chad Beard from the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which collected product samples from the plant.

Tomorrow, the fourth week of the trial begins, with Lightsey still on the witness stand. Defense cross-examination is unlikely to take as long as his direct testimony. Prosecutors always knew that getting evidence from microbiological tests and all the various computer files would eat up court time.

The original estimate was that it would take five weeks to put on the prosecution’s case, but it’s taking longer than that. How much longer? It’s not possible to say. On Thursday, the prosecution moved quickly through those government scientists.

This is the third in our little weekly discussions about what’s happening with the PCA case. And, last week, what was happening was mostly happening very slowly. Time can be made up in trials, but they can also end up taking longer than anyone can estimate.

© Food Safety News
  • ethanspapa

    “Thomas Jefferson would have a fit” of the dumbing down of or court/Jury system.
    Why have juries when someone with a conservative narrow view of what he thinks the law says.
    Or the liberal who thinks every human being on this earth is equal in every respect, including females and anyone who has a different shade of skin color. Also people in office and especially civil servants that are to protect and serve the good citizens, not beat them or kill them as we have seen so OFTEN lately, of this once great country. I might glance at it to make sure I don’t put someone away for 10 years for smoking pot. Having three strikes and your gone forever because you are addicted to heroin and the only person you hurt was yourself..
    Hey Tommy wake up we need you. Jack and Bobby you too are needed again.
    Can we please get Congress to overturn the Homeland Security and The godforsaken Patriot Acts
    that were created out of fear and a reaction to the same, because someone put their finger in the air and see if it would get someone reelected. We kill each other in the name of those two idiotic laws that are redundant. The constitution already addresses it.
    God save the USA!!!

  • Regcoordin MD

    The sheets that Mr Flynn spoke about are most likely a summary of the jury instructions that judges are required to give to jurors before they go out to deliberate. Those instructions are very specific about what makes the crime and how they are supposed to come to a decision.
    One of the beauties of the jury system is that you have a gathering of people with many points of view, and they are supposed to use that diversity to make sure that all sides of the issues are considered, out of fairness to the accused. It is the duty of the attorneys for the prosecution and defense to make sure that the jury is capable of making a fair judgement and that the composition is not all one way or another. When done right, the jury system works very well.