On Friday, U.S. marshals escorted brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell from the C.B. King U.S. Courthouse in downtown Albany, GA, to the Crisp County Jail in Cordele, GA, where they spent their first night in prison. The two men will likely remain in the lockup until at least Monday, when they might be able to post secured bail bonds of up to $150,000 so they can be released until sentencing.
Both Stewart and Michael Parnell were convicted earlier Friday in Albany’s U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia on multiple federal felony counts stemming from a deadly Salmonella outbreak that began almost six years ago. They were then transported to the Crisp County Jail, 44 miles to the northeast.
A third defendant, Mary Wilkerson, the former quality control manager for the Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, GA, processing plant responsible for the Salmonella contamination, was allowed to go home. She was found guilty on one of two counts of obstruction of justice.
The 60-year-old Stewart Parnell and his 55-year-old brother were together convicted on a total of 97 federal felony counts. Upon hearing the jury verdicts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Dasher asked to have the brothers jailed until sentencing. He said that, because of their ages, the expected sentences of 27-33 years would be the equivalent of life sentences.
Dasher’s inference was that the Parnell brothers have every reason to flee before sentencing. Since their February 2013 indictment, they’ve been free on unsecured $100,000 signature bonds and also surrendered their passports. U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands gave the pair until 5 p.m. EDT Friday to come up with $150,000 bonds secured with cash or property. Neither made the deadline.
When they do bond out, they will lose certain other freedoms. Stewart Parnell’s pilot’s license was permanently revoked, and neither man will be able to travel outside their home state of Virginia without permission.
Earlier Friday, both Parnell families and Wilkerson’s met the jury verdict with emotional outbursts. Stewart Parnell simply put his head down on the defense table.
The verdict was also an emotional moment for outbreak victims and their families who have sought justice in the case. In the tight third-floor Georgia courtroom, those two groups were never far from one another during the eight-week trial that began last July 28 when prospective jurors were first summoned.
The government took 26 days during the trial to call 46 witnesses and introduced more than 1,000 documents as evidence. At no point did the government charge the defendants with being responsible for the deaths or injuries that resulted from the outbreak.
However, prosecutors did demonstrate that the PCA executives were involved in a large conspiracy involving shipments fraud and wire fraud, in addition to obstruction of justice. The government painted a picture of company officials so anxious to ship peanut butter and peanut paste that concerns about food safety fell to the wayside.
Stewart Parnell was convicted on numerous counts of putting misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce.
Prosecutors piled the evidence high with layer upon layer, showing emails, lab reports, shipping documents and other records. The government had help in the trial from two former PCA executives with whom they reached plea agreements — Samuel Lightsey, the former Blakely plant manger, and Daniel Kilgore, the former Blakely operations manger.
In their deals with the government, Lightsey will get no more than six years in jail, and Kilgore, no more than 12. Given the outcome of the trial, the two will likely serve much less time than that. Together, they testified for about 10 days and clearly delivered for the prosecution.
Jurors were likely convinced by some of the emails, especially the ones in which the Parnells seemed unmoved by whether or not any one product shipment was contaminated. “Just ship it,” read a Stewart Parnell email about a peanut load held up for a lab test. “I cannot afford to (lose) another customer.”
(Dallas Carter, Food Safety News’ courthouse observer, assisted in this report.)© Food Safety News