The testimony of a Virginia neuropsychologist who says the former president and CEO of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is inadmissible, and he will be excluded as an expert witness at trial. Ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands said that the testimony of Dr. Joseph Conley, Jr., “is unhelpful and lacks a link with the allegations in this case.” The judge’s order disqualifying Conley as an expert witness is a pre-trial blow to Stewart Parnell, the former PCA executive who wanted to insert his ADHD condition into the jury trial scheduled to begin July 14.

Stewart Parnell
Parnell, his brother Michael, and Mary Wilkerson, the former PCA quality control manager, face trial in connection with a 76-count, 52-page indictment against them arising from the sale of Salmonella-contaminated peanuts that led to a multistage outbreak in 2008-09 that sickened 700 and killed nine. Parnell is accused of defrauding PCA customers with peanut products with harmful microbiological content and by fraudulently shipping peanut products that did not meet customers’ specifications. He wanted Conley named as an expert witness, but the government objected, sending the issue to a so-called Daubert hearing held in Albany, GA, last March. Prosecutors said it was “difficult to fathom” that Parnell could have been “so stricken and confused” by his never-before-diagnosed ADHD that he couldn’t have “formulated the intent to defraud his customers.” “In response, Parnell tried to reframe the issue by claiming he was offering neither a diminished capacity nor justification defense,” the judge’s order states. “Instead, Dr. Conley’s testimony ‘will be offered to show that Stewart Parnell did not commit the crimes alleged because he never factually acquired the knowledge necessary to form any intent about the actions alleged by the government.’ “More specifically, Parnell claimed that Dr. Conley will establish ‘that it is highly unlikely that [he] would have read, much less appreciated, the potential import of the communications that the Government’s case hinges upon.’” Conley said that he found Parnell has ADHD by giving him a battery of tests. That finding was consistent with reports by Parnell’s wife that he suffers from being restless, distracted and inattentive, and that he avoids doing things he deems uninteresting. The Virginia neuropsychologist said these traits suited Parnell as a salesman but not in the “role of an executive” because he lacked the experience and “executive neurocognitive capacity to function at this level.” “Mr. Parnell,” Conley said, “was and remains cognitively incapable of fielding, delineating, organizing, and integrating the daily plethora of phone calls and E-mails required in managing three companies.” At the Daubert hearing, Conley testified that his ADHD findings were “not designed to defeat specific intent,” but to show that Parnell likely did not acquire the knowledge assigned to him in the indictment. On direct examination, Conley explained his tests and testified that Parnell’s diagnosis made it less likely he would create a scheme to defraud customers and that it adversely affected his ability to read and understand e-mails. Also at the March hearing, a John Hopkins University School of Medicine neuropsychologist was called by the government to evaluate Conley’s conclusions. Dr. David J. Schretlen “noted that the cognitive tests did not show that Parnell was incapable of understanding e-mails and to the contrary, his e-mail responses suggested he could grasp the details and the significance of the correspondence.” Schretlen also called into question whether Parnell’s ADHD, a childhood condition, existed when he was a child, and he suggested Conley’s formulation was inconstant with established diagnostic criteria. Judge Sands said a defendant must show “a valid scientific connection” to the case for an expert witness to be admitted, and that the analysis of scientific evidence should be subject to “rigorous” analysis. Otherwise, he said, there is “an inherent danger” of distracting the jury. “In this case, Parnell has likewise failed to demonstrate the link between his ADHD and the mens rea at issue,” Sands said. “Parnell claims he will not offer Dr. Conley’s testimony to negate specific intent but rather to show he did not ‘factually acquire’ the knowledge alleged in the indictment. This explanation is a distinction with a difference.” Sands added, “Dr. Conley’s testimony is a ‘diminished capacity defense’ designed to show that Parnell did not form an intent to defraud customers, but that testimony is unhelpful to the jury. The allegations in this case involve a complex scheme to defraud and allegations of willfulness — not errors and mistakes in processing ‘the daily plethora of calls and emails required in managing three companies.’” Further, the senior trial judge said that Conley admitted that “nothing about ADHD means Parnell could not intend to defraud customers. To the contrary, as Dr. Conley reported, Parnell was perfectly capable of transforming PCA from a money-losing operation to a business with gross sales of $30 million.”