After setting the scene last week for the criminal trial of three former executives of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), I am beginning a series of weekly comments as the event goes forward. These are not meant to be hard opinion pieces, just some analysis and commentary offered as the products of close observation of the case. After the normal press coverage that comes with a big criminal indictment, and before last Monday’s start of jury selection for the trial, Food Safety News was the only game in town for anyone wanting to follow the 75 weeks of hotly contested pre-trial action. We followed every motion and every court order, and we sent reporters down to each important pre-trial hearing.

Defense attorney Thomas J. Bondurant Jr. presents his opening statement in the PCA trial before U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands. (Artist’s sketch by Richard Millet.)
And while some might think we’d like to keep U.S. v. Stewart Parnell et al to ourselves, nothing could be further from the truth. This trial will be a milestone for food safety, no matter how it comes out. You want to see the Associated Press and other media in the courtroom for this kind of case. Our readers will notice a new byline on our coverage of the trial. Dallas Carter is a college student from the Albany area who is helping us out by covering at least the first half of the trial. She’s worked for an Albany law firm and did some student journalism — a perfect background for this assignment. It’s also been our good fortune to connect with a talented courtroom artist. I have always been a fan of courtroom art. He is the very talented Richard Millet, who has provided our readers with that inside look of the courtroom with sketches of Stewart Parnell with defense attorney Ken Hodges, the government’s trial attorney K. Alan Dasher, and, today, defense attorney Thomas J. Bondurant Jr. and federal Judge W. Louis Sands. One need only look at Richard’s work to know something about the great drama that is underway in Albany, GA. Let’s talk about week one. Everybody knew it was going to take a while to select a jury, and everybody was surprised it took most of four days. Judge Sands, the man in charge, knew that many prospective jurors would look for any excuse they could to get out of a commitment of eight weeks or longer. He also wanted six alternates to make sure there are still enough jurors left at the end of the trial. In the end, 10 men and eight women were selected to fill the 12-member jury and six alternate slots. The real kickoff for any trial is the opening arguments. In this complex criminal case, the first challenge for the prosecution is making it possible for members of the newly seated jury to get their proverbial arms around it. Just about the first thing Alan Dasher, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, told jurors was that prosecutors have “a mountain of evidence” against the three defendants. With only one break, he spoke from 8:20 to 11 a.m. to jurors who had never heard a lick of this before. He spoke both with a broad brush and then he’d focus in on the role of each defendant — owner Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother, and their Blakely, GA, quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson — in the alleged criminal activity. Dasher painted the peanut executives as being willing to ship products without regard to best practices or safety to any customer, even including big national companies such as Kroger and Kellogg’s. He used emails wherever he needed them to illustrate bad behavior. With his broad brush, Dasher was also painting lessons for the jury in business, finance and science. Thus, it came as no surprise that the first witness called by the prosecution was Dr. Darlene Cowart, corporate director of food safety and quality for Birdsong Peanuts. She was called primarily to explain to the jury how peanuts are subjected to microbiological testing and how results are documented for the company and its customers. Nothing Cowart says is specific to PCA. It’s just a needed lesson the prosecution needs to frame the big picture. It’s the first, but it’s going to be far from the last. Not surprising, two of the three defense teams reserved their opening remarks until the prosecution rests its case. Defense attorney Bondurant framed the case for Stewart Parnell as one where the government goes after the small businessman, not big companies such as Kellogg’s.