Criminal appeals in the United States are all about words. Appellants cannot change the trial court record. They can make arguments about legal issues raised by the trial court. But rarely is a defendant sprung from prison to hear a new witness or present new evidence.
Words, how many and how they are divided up, are now concerning the lawyers representing Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell and Mary Wilkerson. They are the three defendants serving prison time while appealing both their convictions and sentences in the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) criminal case related to a deadly Salmonella outbreak.
Appellant briefs for all three defendants are due on Oct. 5. Under procedural rules for the 11th Circuit, each opening brief is limited to 12,000 words, for a total of 36,000 words for all three defendants.
What attorneys for the Parnells and Wilkerson want to do is to be able to allocate the 36,000 words among the three briefs in a way that they are “most efficient and beneficial to the court.” The appellate court has yet to give the lawyers any direction on the issue. However, the U.S. attorney has consented to the word allocation plan.
Stewart and Michael Parnell were both convicted of offenses in a 76-count indictment about peanut products made at PCA’s Blakely, GA, processing plant, which caused a multistate Salmonella outbreak. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson were convicted of obstruction of justice.
In making the case for their word allocation plan, the appellants are pointing to a “massive” trial record, more than 600 docket entries, and numerous motions that were briefed and argued at the trial court level. In addition to the usual conviction and sentencing issues, they also point to alleged jury misconduct.
“Defendants-Appellants anticipate raising on appeal certain issues that were briefed jointly below, and believe that it would be efficient to argue many of those same issues in joint briefings to this court,” the attorneys wrote.
The word allocation request was presented to the court by attorneys Joseph R. Pope on behalf of Michael Parnell, Justin M. Lugar on behalf of Stewart Parnell, and Thomas G. Ledford on behalf of Wilkerson. They say the allocation plan will allow them to raise both common issues and issues concerning only one defendant in their opening appeal briefs.
They’ve pointed to a 2014 case where the 11th Circuit approved a similar plan.
Stewart Parnell, 62, is being held at a federal prison in Estill, SC. He has a scheduled release date of Feb. 5, 2040. Michael Parnell, 57, is being held at a federal prison in Milan, MI. His release date is Feb. 17, 2033. Mary Wilkerson, 43, is scheduled for release from the Marianna, FL, federal prison on March 10, 2020.
All three were sentenced in September 2015, a year after their 2014 convictions by an Albany, GA, jury. PCA was liquidated in bankruptcy proceedings during the year following the outbreak, which sickened thousands and resulted in nine deaths in 2008-09.
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