The complex criminal case against four Peanut Corporation of American executives has already been delayed because some of the defense attorneys involved had competing trial work. Now Edward D. Tolley, attorney for defendant Michael Parnell, has asked the court for a leave of absence from Feb. 26 through March 31, 2014, so he can have knee surgery with time for “recovery and rehabilitation thereafter.” That means Tolley will miss the important March 13 “Daubert” hearing at which attorneys for defendant Stewart Parnell and government prosecutors will argue the admissibility of expert testimony regarding the mental condition of the now-defunct PCA’s chief executive officer. Tolley, however, is not asking for postponement of the “Daubert” hearing until he gets his new knee. He is asking for federal Judge W. Louis Sands to approve his leave of absence from the case and to permit Tolley to send one of his associates from Athens, GA-based law firm of Cook Noell Tolley & Bates, LLP, to cover the hearing. It was a year ago this month that federal prosecutors unsealed lengthy criminal indictments against brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell, Samuel Lightsey and Mary Wilkerson, for a total of 76 felony counts. They are being prosecuted in a complex criminal case involving numerous charges of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice at PCA during the time when Stewart Parnell was chief executive, Michael Parnell was vice president, Lightsey was a top manager at the company’s Blakely, GA, peanut processing plant, and Wilkerson was in charge of quality control. Sands’ current schedule calls for the federal jury trial to begin in Albany, GA, on July 14, 2014. The judge wanted to start the trial just a few days from now, on Feb. 10, 2014, but the schedule got twisted with an Oklahoma murder trial in which Lightsey’s attorney, James W. Parkman, is counsel for one of the defendants. The “Daubert” hearing must stay on schedule if the jury trial is to begin in July. The purpose of the special evidentiary proceeding is to determine the viability of an expert witness who claims Stewart Parnell suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). After hearing evidence and testimony from both sides, it will be up to Sands to decide if the testimony will be accepted as that of a scientific expert. Such proceedings were named for the plaintiff in the 1993 case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. Sands must decide before the jury trial if Stewart Parnell’s “expert,” Dr. Joseph C. Conley, Jr., will be allowed to testify and raise ADHD as a defense against the multiple felony counts that face the former peanut company executive. Government experts are expected to testify at the hearing, along with Dr. Conley. The four defendants are all out on bail while they await trial and assist in their own defenses. They were charged after an FBI investigation into the 2008-2009 Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that sickened more than 700 nationwide and was blamed for nine deaths. The illnesses were linked to peanut butter and peanut paste manufactured by PCA, which had processing plants in Blakely, GA. and Plainview, TX. Numerous indications that the company was shipping product known to be contaminated spurred the unprecedented – for food safety – four-year criminal investigation into PCA activities. The company was forced into bankruptcy liquidation, and its butters and pastes were so widely used that it resulted in the largest multi-product recalls for a single ingredient in history and cost downstream companies millions of dollars. To make the July start date for the jury trial work, Sands has signed a scheduling order with these dates and deadlines:
- March: Hold the “Daubert” hearing and impose March 21 as the deadline for all preliminary motions.
- April: Deadline of April 10 to respond to motions, with an April 30 hearing on motions that are filed.
- May: Deadline of May 20 for government and defense attorneys to file any start of trial motions known as “in limine.”
- June: Responses to motions in limine will be due June 9, and replies must be turned in by June 19. A June 24 pre-trial hearing will be held for Sands to hear arguments on the start of trial motions. Sands wants the attorneys to meet regarding exhibits on June 25.
- July: Attorneys must propose voir dire questions for the jury and jury instructions by July 7. If all of this stays on the tracks, the jury trial will begin on July 14.
In addition to Stewart Parnell’s potential ADHD defense, there are some other pre-trial issues that have gone unresolved. The Parnell brothers continue to want their trials separated from one another. And Wilkerson, who is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, has repeatedly complained to the government over discovery issues.