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PCA defense attorneys switch their focus to Atlanta for appeals

Thomas G. Ledford, the court appointed defense attorney for the former quality control manager at the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America, made numerous attempts to get the trial court to let his client off.

That client, 41-year old Mary Wilkerson, is now serving a five-year sentence for obstruction of justice at the federal correctional institution in Marianna, FL, and Ledford has turned his attention to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, GA, peanut processing plant produced peanut butter and other peanut products, which in late 2008 were connected to a nationwide outbreak of a dangerous strain of Salmonella that sickened thousands and results in nine deaths.

atlantacourtofappeals_406x250In an emergency motion, Ledford has asked the appellate court to order the trial court to produce copies of all trial exhibits for his use in Wilkerson’s appeal.

Three of five defendants in the PCA criminal prosecution, Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell and Wilkerson, filed appeals of their convictions and sentences imposed in September 2015.  The appeals were put on hold until the trial court decided after a January hearing against imposing restitution against any of the defendants.

With the appellate process now resuming in Atlanta, Ledford is letting that court know the trial court in Albany, GA, has not yet provided defense attorneys with copies of all the trial evidence and exhibits.

The three defendants were found  guilty by an Albany jury trial in September 2014.

“Although some trial evidence and exhibits are stated by the government not to pertain to the appellant, the government highlighted and manipulated Wilkerson’s name in bright yellow on much of the evidence produced against the co-defendants, Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell, when presenting it to the jury in an effort to accentuate and allude to Wilkerson being part of a conspiracy, continully and unfairly prejudicing Wilkerson throughout the trial,” Ledford argues.

Wilkerson was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and was acquitted on one and convicted on the other. Her conviction involves statements to investigators and did not involve participation in  the ongoing criminal enterprise that brought convictions against others at the peanut processing company.

In his status report, Stewart Parnell’s appellate attorney Justin M. Lugar,  said “no party has been provided with copies of the the government’s trial exhibits.” Lugar has also requested a copy of the transcript for the restitution hearing.

Ledford says he must have the trial transcripts as quickly as possible to “compare and correlate with the transcripts” and to “prepare and write” the his appellate brief. He says the majority of 900 plus trial exhibits have not been “scanned or imaged nor uploaded” into a database of exhibits.

“Without having copies and/or images of the exhibits tendered by the government and admitted into evidence at trial, the appellant’s counsel would be severely handicapped in preparing appellant’s brief,” Ledford’s motion says.

An indigent defendant cannot be denied a copy of trial transcript based on inability to pay, acceding to Ledford’s research. He has asked the 11th Circuit to “take the appropriate measures” to see the  transcripts and exhibits are scanned and made available to the defense.

Two other PCA defendants, Daniel Kilgore and Samuel Lightsey, were convicted without a trial. Both reached plea agreements with the government that required their cooperation in exchange for consideration at sentencing. Kilgore, 47, is serving a six-year prison term in Louisiana. Lightsey, 51, is serving three years in Arkansas.

Kilgore and Lightsey were both mangers at PCA’s Blakely, GA, peanut processing plant when it produced the peanut butter and other peanut products linked to the deadly 2008 Salmonella outbreak.

Brothers Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell were convicted in a 2014 jury trial on multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, putting adulterate and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Stewart Parnell was chief executive officer of PCA, which went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in the year after the outbreak. Michael Parnell was a peanut broker closely involved with PCA and its customers.

A year after the jury trial, Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years, and Michael to 20 years.  They are serving their time at federal prisons in South Carolina and Michigan.

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