Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Appeals court will hear oral arguments in PCA criminal case

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will hear oral arguments in the appeals of the criminal convictions and sentences of Peanut Corporation of America’s imprisoned executives.

Attorneys for both the government and the defendants — former PCA chief executive Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael Parnell, and quality control manager Mary Wilkerson — requested the oral arguments.

Attorneys learned from the circuit’s case manager that the appellate court has “determined that oral argument will be necessary in this case” as they began collecting additional copies of written arguments and appendixes that were previously filed in the case. A time and place for the oral arguments has not been announced, nor has the court named a panel of judges to hear them.

The appeal by the Parnell brothers and Wilkerson began one year and 10 months ago, shortly after they were sentenced. Officially designated a “complex criminal case” when the accused went to trial in 2014, it remains so on appeal. That is because of the “voluminous record” and the “fact intensive nature of the claims” that caused government attorneys to agree that “oral arguments may assist the court.”

Stewart Parnell, 63, Michael Parnell, 58, and Wilkerson, 44, are serving time in federal prisons. Stewart Parnell was convicted on 67 federal felony counts, Michael Parnell was convicted on 29, and Wilkerson was found guilty of obstruction of justice. Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years, Michael Parnell to 20 years, and Wilkerson to 5 years.

All three were denied release on bail pending the outcome of their appeals.

Written briefs from both sides, filed in late 2016 and earlier this year, have added to the “voluminous record.” John-Alex Romano, who leads the government response team from the U.S. Department of Justice, has described the appeal questions this way:

  • Was the district court’s admission of lay-opinion testimony a reversible plain error;
  • Did the district court abuse its discretion in denying defendants’ motion for a new trial based on the jury’s alleged exposure to extrinsic information;
  • Was there sufficient evidence to support Wilkerson’s conviction for obstructing justice;
  • Did the prosecution a.) violate Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), or Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150 (1972); b.) present false evidence at trial: c.) make an improper reference to Wilkerson’s status as an unindicted co-conspirator when responding to a defense objection; or d.) misstate evidence about Wilkerson in front of the jury;
  • Did the district court plainly err in not severing Wilkerson’s case;
  • Did the district court plainly err in precluding Wilkerson from eliciting testimony about her self-serving statement to law enforcement;
  • Did the district court abuse its discretion in denying Wilkerson’s requests for copies of all pretrial and trial transcripts to prepare for sentencing; and
  • Did, at sentencing, the district court a.) clearly err in calculating loss under Sentencing Guidelines … b.) clearly err in finding that Michael Parnell was a manager or supervisor of criminal activity under the Sentencing Guidelines … c.) rule on all of Wilkerson’s objections to the pre-sentence report, to the extent required by Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure … d.) impose a substantively reasonable sentence on Wilkerson; and e) correctly rule that it lacked authority to grant Wilkerson’s motion for a sentence reduction.

The criminal charges brought in Feb. 2013 stemmed from a 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands and caused at least nine deaths that were caused by a PCA processing plant in Blakely, GA.

The government found PCA knowingly shipped peanut products it knew were contaminated. To charges of shipping misbranded and contaminated product, the government was successful in prosecutions that went to trial in 2014  involving multiple counts of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)


© Food Safety News