Anyone involved in a big trial, even as a casual observer, probably feels a little unsettled when the case goes to the jury as we are all just left sitting around and waiting. We don’t wait well. But now, in the federal criminal trial in Albany, GA, we wait. The case involving those three former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives, including former owner Stewart Parnell, went to the jury on Friday afternoon after closing arguments for the defense. But they did not reach a quick verdict, and, at 5 p.m. Judge W. Louis Sands sent them home for the next five days.

Courtroom observers watch and listen to U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands in Albany, GA. (Artist’s sketch by Richard Millet.)
Jurors won’t return until 8 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 18. The judge’s long-planned absence from the courtroom and a conflict on the part of one of the attorneys is apparently the reason for the unusual delay in the jury’s work. The break in the schedule for jury deliberations was only the first of three surprise developments in the trial this past week. One has to wonder what other shoes might drop. The other two surprises were the “early” conclusion of the prosecution’s case, followed by the short duration of the defense case. We went into this past week of the trial with the understanding that the prosecution would require another week or maybe two. But, at 8:48 a.m. on Sept. 10, the government announced it was through calling witnesses. The prosecution ended after 26 days, some 45 witnesses, and the production of more than 1,000 documents as evidence. The final surprise for the week was widely reported as the “one-hour defense after a five-week trial.” That is not exactly true, but pretty close. Defense statements and witnesses took about 104 minutes before they, too, rested, also on Sept. 10. The jury did not hear any direct testimony from the defendants, as is their right under the U.S. Constitution. Sands again reminded each defendant of their right to testify, and each signed a waiver form that was filed with the court. Nor did the government end up getting any statements the three defendants might have made to the former law firms that represented PCA as a corporate entity before there were any criminal charges. Attorneys for those law firms have aggressively sought a motion to quash government subpoenas, and the trial ended before the issue was settled. In case you missed the reportage from the closing statements, defense attorneys were all looking to frame their client’s role in the case. Stewart Parnell’s defense depicted him as the small business owner whom the government had picked out as a scapegoat in the case so it would not go after big food. To show that he had no concerns about the safety of his product, they pointed out that the peanut butter on his table at home in Virginia was the same as that made at his plant in Georgia. Michael Parnell’s attorney has painted his client as detached from PCA and not knowing about any scheme to sell product that tested positive for Salmonella. And Mary Wilkerson’s attorney argued that the evidence shows his client was cooperative with, and helpful to, investigators. The former quality control manager for PCA at Blakely, GA, is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice. When it does take up its deliberations again, the jury is charged with deciding whether the three defendants are guilty of 111 separate charges, mostly involving fraud and conspiracy and introducing both adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce. No one is directly charged with causing the illnesses or deaths stemming from the Salmonella outbreak that led to the indictments. Department of Justice (DOJ) Attorney Patrick Hearn said, “This is about people wanting to know, when they eat food, it’s safe.”