It’s long been known that government prosecutors would be going for lengthy prison terms if they gained convictions in the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) criminal indictment.
When they went after former CEO Stewart Parnell’s passport, they tallied up the maximum sentences he would be facing if convicted on all counts. The total came to 754 years in prison and $17 million in fines. Acquittal for Parnell came on only one of the 68 federal felonies charged. He was convicted by the jury on all the rest.
More than 2.5 years after the February 2013 indictment, this coming Monday, Sept. 21, (and potentially Sept. 22) have been set aside for sentencing in the PCA case, which will take place in U.S. District Court in Albany, GA.
No doubt federal Judge W. Louis Sands’ in-basket is filling up with documents required for sentencing, including the Final Pre-Sentence Investigative Reports, the government’s sentencing memorandum, and final pleadings from the defendants, who want Sands to deviate from federal sentencing guidelines.
Those guidelines, based on calculations from the U.S. Probation Office, would result in life imprisonment for Stewart Parnell. The prison term for Michael Parnell would range from 210 to 262 months, or 17.5 to 21.8 years. For Mary Wilkerson, PCA’s former quality control manager, the prison time would run from 97 to 121 months, or about 8 to 10 years.
While the government’s final sentencing memorandum is not yet public, nobody involved thinks the prosecutors are going to do anything other than urge Sands to impose lengthy sentences on all three defendants.
One who is trying to bend that thinking is Edward D. Tolley, the Athens, GA, defense attorney for Michael Parnell. In documents asking Sands for “variance from recommended guidelines,” Tolley begins by laying out the fact that the guidelines are no longer mandatory for federal judges, allowing departures “based on both mentioned and unmentioned factors … .”
The defense attorney points out that his 56-year-old client, an insulin-dependent diabetic, has been gainfully employed his entire life. In addition, Michael Parnell has been a mentor to many NCAA-level baseball players. His defense attorney argues that Parnell’s “crime-free life” should be an important factor in sentencing.
Tolley also argues that Parnell’s wrongful conduct was limited to how P.P. Sales, his peanut brokerage, handled the contract involving PCA and Kellogg’s. He says that “Kellogg’s vastly superior economic strength to Parnell and P.P. Sales warrants a reduced penalty in this non-violent offense.”
“In addition to considering the size and strength of the alleged victim, the Court is also asked to consider other relevant conduct by the victim that substantially contributed to the danger presented, and the proportionality and reasonableness of Parnell’s response,” Tolley writes. “The Court will recall the testimony of Wesley Newton, category manager in procurement at Kellogg’s, that Kellogg’s sought out P.P. Sales because it wanted a ‘diversity supplier,’ and P.P. Sales was owned by Michael’s wife, Jean Parnell.”
Further, he states that Kellogg’s, through Newton, had encouraged P.P. Sales to purchase peanuts from a broker named Charles Hoods, who was later jailed for fraud.
Kellogg’s purchased the tanker loads of peanut paste from P.P. Sales without signed contracts or concerns until the outbreak. Tolley depicts Kellogg’s demands on P.P. Sales as involving high-volume production with a tight delivery schedule, which required peanut paste being pumped into holding tanks with differing loads from differing suppliers. Parnell notes that Kellogg’s “never tested finish products.”
Tolley further argues that Michael Parnell was much less involved in what was going on at PCA that Daniel Kilgore and Samuel Lightsey, the former managers who testified for the government in exchange for having their prison time capped at 12 and six years, respectively. As a result, Tolley asks for “fairness and proportionality” in the sentencing of Michael Parnell.
The defense attorney is painting his client as a “family man,” who has been married for 31 years and has two sons, including one who has special needs.
“Given Collin’s struggles and support required from his parents, separation of father and son at this point will be detrimental to the entire family,” Tolley states.
“To put it quite simply, Michael Parnell is the ‘little guy’ in this case,” Tolley adds. “He lost his job in the industry, invested his entire life savings into two tanker trucks to service his small brokerage business, and in the end was dependent and beholden to his older brother and Kellogg’s for his livelihood. He lost it all.”
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