Audiences at my lectures are often surprised that, after the death of my 16-month-old son, Riley, during the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, no state or federal agency filed criminal charges against anyone involved in that easily-preventable tragedy.
For the past 22 years since Riley’s death, I viewed the American justice system as being less than what I had learned in school and not reflecting the U.S. Constitution that I swore to uphold and defend while serving in the Navy.
On Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, I saw for myself when Justitia finally opened her eyes to focus on and punish food executives whose wanton actions sickened and killed unsuspecting consumers. Sitting in the gallery of the federal courthouse in Albany, Georgia, I bore witness to the sentencing of three Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives convicted for their roles of knowingly selling Salmonella Typhimurium-tainted peanuts to food processing manufacturers, which then made their deadly way to consumers in 46 states during 2008 and 2009.
After calling the court to order, U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands said that victims and family members of victims were present in the courtroom to be heard before sentencing. While this sentencing hearing was specifically for Stewart Parnell (former CEO of PCA), Michael Parnell (brother of Stewart and former broker for PCA), and Mary Wilkerson (former QA manager for PCA), the judge also ordered that Daniel Kilgore and Samuel Lightsey (both former plant managers for PCA) be present. Kilgore and Lightsey, also convicted for their roles in the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak, will be sentenced next week. Judge Sands wanted them to also hear the testimony of the victims and their families.
The lead prosecutor introduced each victim’s testimony. Gabrielle Meunier told the court that she did not want her son present to hear the tragic details of his 2008 illness.
“My 7-year-old son told me that he was in so much pain that he wanted to die,” she said.
Randy Napier, whose mother died as a result of eating tainted peanuts during the outbreak, shared with the court that his mother “taught us traits of love, respect, and forgiveness … traits that are being tested today.”
Jeff Almer, who attended most of the trial hearings last summer, stared at and talked directly to each of the defendants. In a haunting tone, he said, “Stewart Parnell, you killed my mom.”
Peter Hurley, whose son, Jacob, was sickened by PCA peanuts, flew in from Portland, Oregon, to say, “Stewart Parnell, you gave some people death sentences. Luckily, you are not being sentenced to death.”
Ernest Clark had great difficulty controlling his emotions as he described the impact of the outbreak on his family. He told the court, “My grandmother suffered the maximum penalty anyone can pay for eating a food she loved.”
The last to speak at the sentencing hearing was Al Shelander. In a solemn voice, he talked of how his life and lives of his children were forever changed by the death of wife and mother Betty. “One day, the center of our family was gone,” he said.
After hearing testimony from those impacted by the Salmonella outbreak, the court took statements from friends and family members of the convicted executives and comments from the prosecution and defense teams. After a recess during the afternoon, the court reconvened and the judge began to impose sentences on each of the three defendants.
Sands took his time remembering and discussing the victims and the courtroom testimony.
“We place faith that no one would intentionally ship products to market that are contaminated,” the judge said. He continued, “Striking and strong testimony was heard today. Consumers are at the mercy of food producers for the safety of the products. These acts [of the convicted PCA executives] were driven by profit and the protection of profit … thus greed.”
Sands told Stewart Parnell that while this case “does not represent [his] entire life, the outcome affects a lot of people.” He concluded that Stewart Parnell had clear “knowledge that there was Salmonella in the peanuts and that it was being shipped out of [his] plant.” He noted that Parnell had “taken risks for years,” that they were “eventually discovered and traced back” to his corporation, and that, unfortunately, “thousands of people suffered and nine died” from Parnell’s knowing disregard for public health and safety.
For Stewart Parnell’s role, and after guilty verdicts on more than 60 criminal charges, Sands sentenced Parnell to a term of 336 months — 28 years in prison.
When Michael Parnell stood before the bench, the judge made similar statements regarding how the case before the court reflected on only a small part of his life. Sands then sentenced Michael Parnell, following his conviction on more than 30 criminal charges, to a term of 240 months — 20 years in prison.
Finally, the judge addressed defendant Mary Wilkerson, the former QA manager at PCA.
“You were not a top executive in PCA, and your attorney painted a picture of you as a minor player in this case. You were aware of what was going on and played a role in concealing the problem. That was not actually a minor role in this case,” he concluded.
Sands acknowledged the testimony of Wilkerson’s sister and husband regarding her spouse and two sons.
“To have a strong family and still be able to care for them is a lot better than the reality for some of those in this courtroom,” he said.
The judge imposed sentence on Mary Wilkerson, after her conviction on one count of obstruction of justice, to the maximum possible term of 60 months — 5 years in prison.
After another brief recess (it was now past 6 p.m.), the prosecution team asked the court to find that the Parnell brothers were flight risks and to deny them bail while they appeal their convictions. The prosecutors did not ask the same for Wilkerson. The defense attorneys then made a few statements regarding their clients and, with that, the judge took a brief recess.
Sands then discussed and dismissed defense team allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and a less-than-unbiased jury. He also addressed defense objections to the victims’ testimony, citing their constitutional rights.
The judge then announced that the character witnesses and families of the two Parnell brothers hurt their argument that the two men would not be a flight risk by talking about Stewart Parnell’s hobby of being a licensed pilot and flying all over the country, their family resources, and their many connections around the world. He ordered that the two be taken into custody of the U.S. Marshals while allowing bail for Wilkerson (stating that she did not pose the same flight risk without the same access to resources) until the Bureau of Prisons directs her to appear at a specified time and place to begin her sentence.
The PCA case, according to Sands, was not about the “condemnation of peanuts or the peanut industry, but of a few individuals.”
In my opinion, the outcome of the sentencing will send strong messages.
Corporate boardrooms across America — those in the food industry and beyond — will be talking about the legal implications of this case for many years to come. For the first time, executives and others involved in allowing tainted food to enter the food chain will be facing potential personal criminal liability. That should be a real wake-up call.
The victims and their families played a key role in this trial at sentencing. For them, and for the thousands of others across this country impacted by preventable foodborne illnesses, the outcome should serve as some element of closure and vindication.
Finally, this trial and the sentences should send a strong message of hope to American families, hope now that the justice system has tackled this in a meaningful and aggressive way. Some may call the lengths of these sentences too short, given the deaths and illnesses caused by the actions of these defendants. That’s best left to judges and juries.
If the executives at Jack in the Box had been prosecuted two decades ago, imagine the impact on the food industry that likely would have resulted and how many illnesses and deaths could have been prevented. As I stated before legislators in 1993, “No product, no industry, no job is more important than a life — particularly a child’s life.”
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