Two days have been set aside this week to resolve remaining pre-sentence issues in the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) criminal case being heard in federal court in Albany, GA.
While this is the most significant criminal food safety case to ever be tried in the United States, it’s gone on so long that some people may have forgotten why it’s so important and just what happened.
Today, Food Safety News provides a timeline summary of the events that brought us to this day. Tomorrow, as the case resumes in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, we’ll look at its significance and what’s happening now that it is finally nearing the end.
Here’s the timeline from the beginning until now:
The Outbreak (Sept. 6, 2008, to April 18, 2009): The onset of Salmonella Typhimurium infections in the U.S. spanned seven months. Before the outbreak ended, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially recognized 714 cases, but the agency noted that, for every confirmed case, it was likely that at least 30 more went unreported. This means as many as 20,000 people may have been sickened by the contaminated peanut butter. The outbreak is blamed for nine deaths.
The Recall (Jan. 9, 2009, through the end of the year): PCA ceased production and shipment of peanut butter and peanut paste from its Blakely, GA, processing plant on Jan. 9, and the recalls that began then would continue for most of the year. PCA ceased operations at its Plainview, TX, plant on Feb. 10.
The recalls were not only for peanut butter packaged by PCA. More than 200 companies recalled a total of 3,918 products which included PCA peanut butter or peanut paste as an ingredient. It is likely the most expensive recall over a single ingredient in U.S. history.
The Political Storm (High point: February 2009): During the peanut butter scare, America acquired a new president, and it was very early in his first term that Barack Obama stepped up to speak for almost all parents when he said:
“At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch,” Obama said, referring to his then 7-year-old daughter. “Probably three times a week. I don’t want to worry about whether she’s going to get sick as a consequence of eating her lunch.”
But a week later, parents did not get much in the way of reassurance when former PCA owner Stewart Parnell was called to testify before Congress because he invoked his right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“I respectively decline to answer your question,” Parnell said. However, his words were entered into the record in the form of emails turned up by congressional investigators. To his managers who asked him what they should do with product that tested positive for Salmonella, he responded with orders to, “Turn them loose,” or a similar phrase.
To Congress, Parnell came across as being only concerned about how much money it was costing him to delay shipments after positive Salmonella tests and wait for re-testing. The work of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was enough to cause the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to raid the Blakely plant and announce that a federal investigation was underway.
Civil Litigation (2009-2011): Wrongful death and injury lawsuits for the most serious damage done by PCA products were filed by top plaintiff attorneys. The company had some liability insurance and $12 million was distributed Sept. 1, 2010, under a settlement approved by the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia as part of PCA’s bankruptcy proceedings. Other companies, such as Kellogg’s, which were also sued in their capacity as users of PCA ingredients in their products, settled those cases.
The Investigation (Feb. 2009 to Feb. 2013): A federal investigation leading to grand jury indictments took four years, with only occasional acknowledgement that it was continuing. The FBI, the Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch, and the U.S. District Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia were the cooperating agencies in the federal probe.
During the four-year-long investigation, government officials said hardly anything on or off the record, although Virginia defense attorney Thomas J. Bondurant Jr. did tell local media outlets that he had a new client: Stewart Parnell.
The Indictment (Feb. 21, 2013): PCA again dominated the news when a 76-count indictment was unsealed charging four of the defendants with mail and wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intend to defraud or mislead. The same day, those four defendants learned that Daniel Kilgore, former operations manager at the Blakely plant, had pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
As they were being booked, Stewart Parnell and his brother, peanut broker Michael Parnell, former Blakely plant manager Samuel Lightsey, and former quality control manager Mary Wilkerson must have known Kilgore would testify for the government at their trial over a scheme to manufacturer and ship Salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products, thereby misleading customers, including global, multi-billion-dollar food companies.
Before the federal criminal charges were handed down, PCA had ceased to exist through bankruptcy proceedings that liquidated the company. Senior U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands, a former chief judge for the Middle District of Georgia, got the case assignment. He released the defendants to assist in their own defenses, with minimal bond requirements.
The government and the multiple defense attorneys now involved agreed it is a “complex case” and waive the speedy trial rule.
Pre-Trial (Feb. 2013 to July 2014): The 17-month period before the jury trial began is mostly remembered for two developments. Through his defense attorneys, Stewart Parnell tried unsuccessfully to create a defense around his claimed condition of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The issue went to a so-called “Daubert” hearing before Judge Sands, who listened to arguments for and against ADHD as a defense before tossing it.
The Trial (mid-July to mid-September 2014): A 12-member jury with six alternates heard the testimony, mostly put on by the prosecution. While taking full advantage of cross-examination, the defense used less than one day to present its case. The jury convicted all three defendants. Wilkerson was found guilty on one of two counts of obstruction of justice with which she was charged, while the Parnell brothers were found guilty on a total of 97 federal felony counts.
The prosecution immediately demanded that Stewart and Michael Parnell be taken into custody until they were able to put up cash bails of $150,000 and $100,000, respectively. Sands set a 30-day deadline for post-trial appeals.
Post Trial (mid-September 2014 to present): After holding closed-door hearings and taking several months to write his decision, Sands rejected calls by the defense to either have the verdicts set aside or for a new trial.
The most serious post-trial accusation was that some jurors had discussed the fact that the outbreak had caused the deaths of some victims and that they had failed to disclose their knowledge of the deaths or their opinion about it during jury selection. Sands re-interviewed almost all the jurors under the threat of perjury and was able to determine the charges of jury misconduct did not occur. The only juror he was concerned with was the one who accused the others.
The judge’s investigation into the conduct of the jury was largely carried out behind closed doors, with related documents sealed from the public.
In the next two days, Sands is expected to resolve all outstanding pre-sentence issues, including restitution and challenges to pre-sentence investigative reports. After that, only the actual sentencing of the five defendants will remain.
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