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11th Circuit sets date for arguments in PCA criminal appeals

Oral arguments for the appeals of Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell and Mary Wilkerson are set for the week of Nov. 6, according to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The trio, once associated with the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), is appealing their jury convictions and sentences for their roles contributing to a Salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands and killed nine in 2008-09.

It is considered the most significant criminal prosecution of a food safety case in the history of the United States.

The Atlanta-based appellate court has the job of reviewing a record that “spans tens of thousands of pages” and features some extraordinarily complex legal and factual issues. In written briefs already submitted to the 11th Circuit, prosecution and defense attorneys agreed that oral arguments were needed.

A panel of three not yet named appellate judges will decide if the trial judge made the correct decisions on the federal case or if errors occurred.

While the appeal plays out, the three appellants are behind bars, as are two other former PCA managers who opted out of jury trials by pleading guilty. All totaled, the five named in the PCA criminal prosecutions went to federal prisons for a total of 62 years.

All except Michael Parnell were PCA managers. He was a peanut broker. His brother Stewart Parnell was a PCA owner and chief executive.

PCA’s peanut processing plant in Blakely, GA, was the source of the deadly nationwide Salmonella outbreak in 2008-09. After a four-year FBI investigation, the federal government filed multiple charges of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice ,in addition to more typical food safety violations of allowing misbranded and adulterated food from reaching the marketplace.

While former PCA managers Daniel Kilgore and Samuel Lightsey agreed to plead guilty to some of the charges in exchange for their testimony, the Stewart brothers and Wilkerson proceeded to a jury trial in 2014.

The jury convicted Stewart Parnell of 67 federal felonies and his found his brother Michael Parnell guilty on 29 counts. Stewart’s sentence was 28 years in federal prison. Michael’s was 20.

Wilkerson was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, found not guilty on one of them, and sentenced to five years in prison.

After the jury verdicts had come down, however, jury misconduct became an issue in the case. The trial court permitted the government to talk about the Salmonella illnesses but prohibited any mention of the nine deaths.

Shortly after the trial, a jurist and a journalist told the defense attorneys that jurors talked about the deaths during deliberations. The jury exposure to such “extrinsic evidence” is among the most troubling for the government to put down.

The three defendants want their convictions and sentences set aside, or in the alternative, they want new trials.

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