Mary Wilkerson, who was first hired in 2002 to answer the phones and then worked her way up in March 2008 to being manager of quality assurance at Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, GA processing plant, was the only company employee to go to trial alongside the Parnell brothers. A federal jury in Albany, GA Sept. 19 found Wilkerson guilty of one of two counts of obstruction of justice upon which she was charged. Going through a trial with Stewart and Michael Parnell, two brothers who, respectively, owned and brokered the peanut business that employed Wilkerson, she was in one sense the only defendant that cast anything approaching a sympathetic profile. Second-generation owners of peanut industry businesses, the two Parnell brothers both received guilty verdicts on multiple federal felony counts that could send them to prison for two to three decades. A team of some of the South’s best federal defense attorneys represent each Parnell brother; Stewart’s lawyers are from Atlanta and Roanoke, VA, and Michael’s from Athens, GA. Only a single court-appointed local defense attorney from Albany, GA represents Wilkerson. While she emerged from the near-eight-week-jury trial better off than the Parnells, a guilty verdict for a single count of federal felony obstruction of justice can result in a five year prison term. No surprise, then, that Wilkerson wants the court to set aside the guilty verdict against her. On her behalf, her attorney in October filed arguments that the trial evidence was ‘not sufficient to support a guilty finding in her case.’ Because that request was made, government attorneys have for the first time collected into one narrative the case against Wilkerson. They did not want to lose their one conviction of a PCA top command and they outline all that was on the record that should send her for sentencing along with the Parnell brothers. “Her protestations notwithstanding,” wrote U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Trial Attorney Mary M. Englehart, “The evidence against Defendant Mary Wilkerson at trial was considerable.” Englehart, one of three government attorneys who prosecuted the PCA criminal cases, said Wilkerson obstructed justice by falsely telling Janet Gray, the lead U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigator into the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak, that she was aware of no positive Salmonella test results for peanut products being distributed by the Blakeley plant. The evidence presented to the jury against Wilkerson included:
- Gray testified on Aug. 6 that when she specifically asked Wilkerson if she knew of any positive test results, and Wilkerson responded by saying she was not working in quality assurance earlier in the year (2008) and was not aware of any positives. Asked about her memory of the event (from early 2009), Gray testified, “There are some conversations you never forget.”
- Gray further testified at trial that she was certain Wilkerson denied knowledge of positive tests because if she and other PCA officials had been truthful and forthcoming during the inspection, it would have resulted in an earlier and broader recall of peanut products from the facility, including granulated peanuts and other products not initially recalled. It would have meant those products would have been removed sooner from retail stores and homes than they were.
- Gray also told the jury that regulatory inspectors and microbiologists without any FDA criminal investigators conducted January 2009 inspection of the PCA processing plant at Blakely, GA. At that time, it was purely an inquiry into the source of the salmonella outbreak in peanut products, hoping to obtain truthful information from interviews.
- Gray’s findings were recorded contemporaneously in her diary, then memorialized in her FDA Establishment Inspection Report (EIR), both sources she referenced while on the witness stand even though neither document was admitted into evidence.
- FDA Inspector Robert Neligan testified that the agency issue PCA a Form 482c to PCA in order to compel the company to produce within 24 hours the very records Wilkerson and others were not being truthful about on a voluntary basis.
The prosecution argues that Gray contemporaneously recorded notes, and a June 30, 2008 email chain involving Jesus Garrocho, PCA’s operations manager in Plainview, TX, documented Wilkerson’s knowledge of the Salmonella contamination problems the company was experiencing. Wilkerson had emailed Garrocho about Salmonella being a problem “at least every other week if not every week.” In addition, she was on June 6, 2008 emailing Stewart Parnell, saying, “this lot is presumptive on SALMONELLA!!!!” “This email demonstrates Defendant Wilkerson’s knowledge of presumptive positive test results and knowledge that this is a common occurrence in the facility,” Englehart adds. She also pointed out email evidence that Wilkerson suspected mice were responsible for contaminating the peanut processing plant. The DOJ lawyer says there is more than enough evidence for a rational juror to have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilkerson had obstructed justice. She dismisses arguments made on Wilkerson’s behalf as “unavailing in light of the jury’s reasoned determination that the witness testimony and documentary evidence were credible and supported a finding of guilty….” The government’s brief says court rules do not require more or different evidence to support a jury’s finding of guilt. The prosecution attorneys argue, “Wilkerson’s repeated attempts to undercut the credibility of the Government’s evidence are likewise irrelevant…” Under the rules, they say the Court must assume the truth of the evidence offered by the Government. The bottom line for the government is that Wilkerson had knowledge of additional positive Salmonella tests results at PCA and lied about them when the outbreak investigation team arrived in Blakeley in January 2009. That slowed what would eventually become the largest ingredient recall in U.S. history, including both PCA own products and those made by hundreds of others with PCA peanut butter and/or paste. That initial stonewalling was a barrier the FDA outbreak team had to overcome as they scrambled to find the source of the deadly Salmonella Typhimurium pathogen that would ultimately cause nine deaths among more than 700 that were sickened throughout the country. Two of Wilkerson’s follow employees, Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, were also charged, but instead of going to trial the former Blakeley plant and operations mangers entered into plea agreements with the government. Both men testified for the government at the trial and will likely get favorable consideration at sentencing.