No criminal trial is perfect. While it’s been difficult to wait for the past eight months, we are now confident that the trial of the United States of America v. Stewart Parnell et al was close enough to perfection to easily pass muster. Senior federal Judge W. Louis Sands used that extra time to do all the work necessary to prove the defendants got a fair trial and the hearsay stirred up in the wake of the trial was just that. Sands not only went about checking on the veracity of the jury, he did so without entangling the news media. After the mid-September jury verdicts mostly went against the accused, defense attorneys filed multiple post-trial appeals. The most concerning allegation involved potential jury misconduct based on an affidavit of a juror and a local writer who helped cover the trial for Food Safety News.

Stewart Parnell (right), former CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America, with defense attorney Ken Hodges. (Artist’s sketch by Richard Millet.)
That local writer was no longer with us when the affidavit was offered up to the defense. It was offered based on interviews with some jurors who said that during jury deliberations other jurors said the defendants were guilty because the Salmonella outbreak discussed at trial led to nine deaths, which were not supposed to be mentioned by anyone. Volunteering to provide this sort of affidavit is not the role for any journalist. We were pleased to learn from the judge’s ruling that the affidavit had “no bearing on the outcome of this case.” “The referenced assertions were made by people without personal knowledge of the subject matter and consisted entirely of hearsay,” Sands wrote. He said that by refraining from obtaining information from a member of the media, he avoided any problems regarding freedom of the press and reporter privilege. Instead, in two closed hearings, Sands went about questioning 17 jurors under oath and under the threat of perjury if they were caught lying and came to the conclusion that the only juror with a bias was the one making the allegations of misconduct. That was Juror 34, who reportedly got into an emotional scene with defendant Wilkerson after the trial. In making his ruling, Sands also pointed to some common sense about the verdicts themselves that indicate an honest jury. “The evidence against the Defendants was overwhelming,” he wrote. “The trial involved over six weeks of testimony and voluminous supporting documentation. Also, the jury’s verdict indicated the jury was thorough and contemplative. “The jury deliberated over four days and returned numerous verdicts of not guilty,” he continued. “As discussed above, the jury apparently decided that the Government’s evidence against Michael Parnell was insufficient to establish that he played an active role in introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud but that he did play such a role in introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud. Such a nuanced distinction would not likely have been reached by a jury acting under the influence of a biased juror.” Sands also does not think that mention or knowledge of deaths blamed on the outbreak traced to products from the Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, GA, plant were “highly prejudicial” in the context of a trial where there was testimony about the impacts of Salmonella poisoning. He noted that the defense accepted jurors with knowledge of the deaths to sit on the jury. He called that “tacit admission that knowledge of deaths standing alone does not necessarily render a juror incapable of making an unbiased determination of guilt.” The court order represents the end of the line for post-trial appeals in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. Further appeals will have to be filed up the road in Atlanta in U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. But in the immediate future, it’s time for Sands to schedule sentencing dates for Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Mary Wilkerson, Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore. All five were subjects of the February 2013 indictments. Sands’ order denying motions for acquittal, dismissal, or a new trial for either the Parnell brothers or Wilkerson means that it’s reality time for the three defendants convicted by the jury and the two defendants (Lightsey and Kilgore) who pleaded guilty to various charges and agreed to testify against the others. For his part, the judge nailed this one down. When the 11th Circuit reviews the trial record, it will ultimately find that justice has been done. The defendants are likely to wait for that decision from the confines of the federal penal system.