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Oral arguments next month in peanut butter criminals’ appeals

The last time criminal case activity involving Peanut Corporation of America took place in an actual courtroom was almost two years ago. That was for the restitution hearing in relation to Salmonella-contaminated food that killed nine and sickened thousands.

The restitution hearing for the company officials was the final action in the case in U.S. District Court in Albany, GA. Appeals have been in the works since then.

Next month, several appellate attorneys will square off in oral arguments at the Elbert P. Tuttle Courthouse in Atlanta.

Former PCA chief executive Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael Parnell, and the one-time quality assurance manager at PCA in Blakely, GA, Mary Wilkerson, have appealed their convictions and sentences.

Wilkerson has already served a significant portion of her 5-year sentence. Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell are just at the beginnings of their prison terms, of 28 years and 20 years, respectively.

Since the last District Court hearing, appellate attorneys for the trio have filed reams of written arguments on behalf of their clients. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has responded in kind.

It was not a surprise that the appellants requested an opportunity to present oral arguments in the complicated criminal case. But so did John-Alex Romano, the DOJ appellate section attorney who represents the government’s criminal response team in the case.

He filed an appellate court brief that said due to the “voluminous record” and “fact-intensive nature of claims,” the government “agrees that oral argument may assist the court.”

With oral arguments rarely allowed to go longer than 30 or 40 minutes, all attorneys are going to be challenged to get their most important points across to the court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals has scheduled the oral arguments for Nov. 7 in Atlanta. In addition to Romano, lawyers presenting arguments will include:

Justin M. Lugar, representing Stewart Parnell
Lugar earned his law degree in 2008 from the Liberty University School of Law. He clerked for judges in both the 24th Judicial Circuit of Virginia and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Currently Lugar is a partner with the Roanoke, VA-based firm Gentry Locke.

Before joining Gentry Locke, Lugar was an associate at WilmerHale in London. The American College of Trial of Lawyers awarded Lugar the 2016 Chappell-Morris Award for demonstrated professionalism, high ethical and moral standards, excellent character, and outstanding trial skills.

Joseph Ray Pope, representing Michael Parnell
Pope earned his law degree from the University of Richmond School of Law, graduating summa cum laude. He was articles editor of the law review. Pope was a law clerk for judges in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, and the bankruptcy court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Pople is listed as a “Rising Star” by Virginia Super Lawyers magazine and as being among Virginia’s “Legal Elite” by Virginia Business Magazine. He is the author of a long list of articles on legal topics. His clients include numerous Fortune 500 companies and others on a wide variety of litigation.

Thomas G. Ledford, representing Mary Wilkerson
Ledford earned his law degree from the University of Georgia in 1974. In 1976 the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia admitted Ledford to practice. The same court named him to represent the indicted Wilkerson in 2013.

Ledford has practiced law for the past 43 years. He has focused on both tort and constitutional issues.

The road to the appeal arguments
A jury convicted the Parnell brothers and Wilkerson in 2014. The panel found the Parnells guilty on a range of charges including mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, and selling adulterated and misbranded food. Wilkerson was convicted on one count of obstruction of justice and found innocent on another.

The charges all stemmed from PCA’s role in the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak spread by peanut butter and peanut paste from its Blakely, GA, plant. The contamination caused at least nine deaths, and likely sickened thousands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two PCA managers did not go to trial but instead agreed to plead guilty in exchange for consideration at sentencing. Samuel Lightsey, the 52-year old former PCA-Blakely plant manager, was released on Sept. 29 from his 3-year prison sentence.

Daniel Kilgore, the PCA-Blakely operations manager who pleaded guilty in exchange for a 6-year term, is due out in 2021.

Stewart Parnell is not scheduled to get out of prison until Feb. 6, 2040. Michael Parnell’s release date is Feb. 17, 2033. By that time the brothers would respectively be, 86 and 75 years old.

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