In the 75 weeks between the indictment and the start of the trial, and during the eight-week jury trial, the criminal cases against former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives have largely played out in public. But since the jury handed down guilty verdicts a month ago, many of the orders, motions, and documents filed in the case have been sealed from public view and for reasons that are often unclear. The 30-day deadline for post-trial motions imposed by U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands passed Sept. 19. The three defendants convicted by the jury all want Sands to either overturn the verdicts or order new trials. More than a dozen other court documents filed since the end of the trial are sealed, including orders from the judge. No sentencing date is known to have been set. Pre-sentencing reports for the federal courts are conducted largely in secret, and it’s possible that references to those investigations are among the sealed files that are piling up. Among the motions that are public, here’s what we’ve learned since 60-year-old Stewart Parnell, chief executive and owner of the now-defunct PCA; his 55-year-old brother Michael Parnell, a peanut broker, and Mary Wilkerson, PCA’s quality assurance officer, were found guilty on various felony charges:
- As reported by Food Safety News on Oct. 8, the Parnell brothers jointly filed a motion for a new trial based on reports that some jurors may have done their own research on the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak that led to the investigation that resulted in the 76-count indictment against the defendants.
- Stewart Parnell, found guilty on 67 counts charged, has moved for a judgment of acquittal or a new trial. His attorneys argue that there is insufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. Parnell says he did not intentionally ship tainted food, believed retesting was a legitimate process, and that his Blakely, GA, operations manager was “following protocol.”
- Michael Parnell, found guilty on 30 counts charged, has moved for a judgment of acquittal. His attorneys argue that since the jury found their client not guilty on multiple charges involving shipping misbranded food or participating in a conspiracy or fraudulent scheme, it’s inconsistent with the convictions.
- Mary Wilkerson, found guilty on one of two counts of obstruction of justice charged, also wants a judgment of acquittal. Her court-appointed attorney, Thomas G. Ledford, argues that the evidence at trial shows confusion about whether Wilkerson was even involved in the incident upon which the charge was made.
That incident concerns Stewart Parnell telling an inspector that, if any samples came up positive, Wilkerson would know about it, but the question involved a time period before she was the QA officer for PCA at Blakely, GA. A Feb. 3, 2009, memo from FDA’s Janet Gray quotes Parnell as saying that “someone” at Blakely would remember if there were any positives, but that relates to a Jan. 20, 2009, phone conversation with Parnell in which he did not mention Wilkerson. “There was no mention of Mary Wilkerson by the name or reference to her position in this quote from Stewart Parnell although this was the basis of Count 73 in the indictment against Wilkerson,” Ledford writes. The Albany, GA, attorney says that Parnell was misquoted in Count 73 of the indictment, and he says that is the basis for the “very serious felony charge of Obstruction of Justice.” Ledford states that Wilkerson’s name is not even mentioned in the memo of the conversation by Gray and that, “at some point in time,” the word “someone” was replaced with “Mary” because the indictment needed a “genuine warm body.” Ledford further argues that the remaining obstruction count is vague and ambiguous in that Wilkerson’s response was to a question that did not clarify the time period involved, and the government has never been able to provide a recording, time log, video, affidavit, statement or any other type of record of their interview with the defendant who supposedly obstructed them. “No such credible evidence was presented by the Government at any time during the Trial, which would have been sufficient for a conviction and therefore, the Defendant argues that no reasonable jury could possibly find guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on Count 73,” Ledford writes. Stewart Parnell’s defense team from Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore in Roanoke, VA, is making multiple arguments on behalf of their client. They argue that the testimony of Daniel Kilgore, the PCA operations manager at Blakely, “was impeached through cross-examination and should be ignored.” Kilgore has a plea agreement with the government and also awaits sentencing. He was indicted separately in February 2013, and his extensive testimony at trial should result in getting favorable consideration at sentencing. The Virginia attorneys also charge that rebuttal and closing arguments by Department of Justice (DOJ) Attorney Patrick Hearn, one of the case’s three prosecutors, was improper for bringing up “food safety.” “The stark implication of Mr. Hearn’s statements was that if the jury did not convict Mr. Parnell that innocent people would fall ill from tainted food,” the defense attorneys wrote. They compared it to a prosecutor bringing up the “War on Drugs,” which courts have found to be improper. They also argue that much of the evidence introduced through the testimony of Samuel Lightsey, the former Blakely plant manager who was also a government witness, was improper because it pre-dated his arrival at the facility. Finally, Stewart Parnell’s attorneys argue that there were enough trial mistakes to either overturn the verdicts or order a new trial based on “cumulative error.”