A lawyer for a second defendant in the fraud and conspiracy case against four Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives wants permission to skip the March 13 “Daubert” hearing in U.S. District Court in Albany, GA. Four defendants, including brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell and two former PCA managers, are scheduled to go on trial for a total of 76 federal felony counts on July 14. The March 13 preliminary hearing is to hear arguments on whether certain expert witness testimony should be permitted at trial. If permitted to testify at trial as an expert witness, Dr. Joseph C. Conley, Jr., will say that Stewart Parnell, CEO of the now-defunct PCA, suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a diagnosis that theoretically could limit his culpability at trial and shift more blame to others. Parnell’s attorney could argue that his client’s ADHD condition made it impossible for him to direct all the decisions involved in the complex criminal complaint. But, so far, two of the other three defendants say they are not interested in what happens at the March 13 hearing. First, the attorney for Michael Parnell, the former PCA vice president and peanut broker, begged off because he is having knee surgery. Attorney Edward D. Tolley already has the court’s permission to be off the case from Feb. 26 to March 31 for the knee surgery and a rehabilitation period. He is sending an associate from Athens, GA-based law firm of Cook Noell Tolley & Bates, LLP, to the March 13 hearing to cover on behalf of Michael Parnell. A second principal defense attorney, James W. Parkman, III, now also wants out of the March 13 hearing. Parkman, who practices out of Birmingham, AL, says “none of the issues being presented at said hearing pertain to our defendant, Samuel Lightsey.” His client was the manager of the PCA peanut processing plant at Blakely, GA, which was the center of the 2008-2009 Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that sickened more than 700 people nationwide and was blamed for nine deaths. In recently filed motion with the court, Parkman says that, unless he’s excused, he will have to ask for a continuance for the “Daubert” hearing because of schedule conflicts. U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands has not yet ruled on Parkman’s motion. It was a year ago this month that federal prosecutors unsealed lengthy criminal indictments against the Parnell brothers, Lightsey and Mary Wilkerson, for a total of 76 felony counts. Wilkerson was quality control manager for the Blakely plant. The federal jury trial has already been delayed to July 14 from a hoped-for start date of Feb. 10 due to lawyer scheduling conflicts. Most of the delay was due to Parkman’s role as a defense attorney in a recent Oklahoma murder case. The “Daubert” hearing must stay on schedule to give Sands time to rule on any expert witnesses for the jury trial to start in July. Such prior-to-trial proceedings were named for the plaintiff in the 1993 case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. All four defendants were released on bail after their arrests to await trail and assist in their own defense. They were charged after a four-year FBI investigation following the deadly outbreak. The illnesses were linked to peanut butter and peanut paste manufactured by PCA at both Blakely, GA, and Plainview, TX. The jury is expected to hear evidence that the company shipped product it knew to be contaminated. The outbreak forced the company into Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation, and its butters and pastes were so widely used that its practices also resulted in the largest multi-product recalls for a single ingredient in U.S. history and cost downstream companies millions of dollars. To make the July start date work for the jury trial, Sands has signed a scheduling order with these dates and deadlines:
- March: Hold the March 13 “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.