The long-running food safety drama that is now the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) criminal case took another important turn last week when the convictions of Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson were upheld by the trial court judge. That was followed by federal Judge W. Louis Sands ordering all the parties back into court on July 1 and 2 “to support or oppose objections to Pre-sentence Investigative Reports, restitution, and any other matters that must be resolved prior to sentencing.” And the judge did something else, too. He ordered documents unsealed from the past eight months that show how he handled defense allegations of jury misconduct — charges Sands took behind closed doors to thoroughly investigate. However, the extended time it took left outsiders wondering what was going on. Enough court documents from that period have now been unsealed so it’s possible for those outsiders to know what happened. For one thing, Sands took control immediately upon reading the two-word charge of “jury misconduct” in an Oct. 6, 2014, defense motion for a new trial filed on behalf of the Parnell brothers by attorney Thomas J. Bondurant Jr. The next morning, the judge began issuing orders. He first ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to track down the jurors and alternates from the trial that ended on Sept. 19, 2014, so they could be told that the court retains jurisdiction over them and intended to sanction anyone who did not follow orders. Sands also issued a gag order applying to attorneys and staff in the criminal case to prevent any of them from speaking with the media or jurors about the case. He also ordered the lawyers to give up everything they had on the jurors and reminded them it is the “Court’s obligation to investigate allegations of extrinsic influence on a jury’s verdict.” Bondurant, a former federal prosecutor, produced two affidavits in support of his motion. One was from a juror and another was from a local writer who spoke with jurors after the trial. Both statements boiled down to claims that the jury knew PCA was responsible for nine deaths in the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak that led to the criminal charges. While not part of the trial, information about those deaths, according to Bondurant, “appears to have been pivotal evidence in the jury deliberations, despite the fact that no such evidence was presented in Court.” Other post-trial appeals for the Parnells and Wilkerson were more pedestrian in nature. In an Oct. 18, 2014, motion, Bondurant said Stewart Parnell’s defense was that the evidence did not sustain his conviction. According to the now-unsealed motion, Parnell did not intentionally ship tainted food products because he had “a good faith belief” that re-testing was a legitimate process and he thought the operations manager at PCA’s Blakely, GA, plant (Daniel Kilgore) was following proper protocol. Bondurant claimed Kilgore’s testimony was impeached through cross-examination and should be ignored. He also took issue with federal prosector Patrick Hearn’s depiction of the case as being about “food safety” and the need to “send a message.” “The stark implication of Mr. Hearn’s statements was if the jury did not convict Mr. Parnell that innocent people would fall ill from tainted food,” he stated. The defense attorney stated that it was like asking for a conviction based on the “war on drugs” and similar statements appeals courts have rejected. Bondurant also tried to keep documents, including emails, from being accepted as evidence, and he argued that the convictions should be overturned based on “cumulative error.” But the defense would not prevail on either side issue or on jury misconduct. Sands did not take a statement from a young local journalist seriously. He said it “consisted entirely of hearsay” and “refraining from obtaining information from a member of the media avoids any potential problems regarding freedom of the press and reporter privilege.” The jury was a different story. Sands said the juror named by the defense was Juror 34 and in that sworn statement “by Juror 34 stating that several jurors conducted their own research into the merits of the above-captioned case, the jury discussed nine deaths caused by PCA, and Juror 35 told Juror 34 during the jury selection process that Juror 35 believed that all Defendants were guilty because they cause nine deaths.” At the first of two closed hearings for the jury, one on Oct. 23 and the other on Nov. 12, Sands decided to call only Juror 34. He reported this result:
- That during jury selection, Juror 34 said Juror 35 said all the Defendants were guilty because their actions results in the deaths of nine people.
- The Court reminded Juror 34 that all venire (jury pool) members were instructed to inform the Court if any person said anything about the case.
- Juror 34 acknowledged remembering that instruction, but did not do so, claiming fear or newness as a juror.
- Juror 34 also said several unnamed jurors did their own research over the course of the trial and discovered the Defendants “killed nine people.”
Sands also learned at the hearing that Juror 34 came to the attention of the defense after having a “personal encounter” with defendant Wilkerson, and that Juror 34 felt responsible for her conviction. At the second hearing, Juror 35 denied making the statements attributed to the juror and claimed to have no knowledge whatsoever of the nine deaths. Sitting next to Juror 35 was Juror 37, who said that Juror 35 did not say anything about the guilt or innocence of the defendants. In questioning all but of one of the original 18 jurors and alternates, Sands came to the conclusion that “many of of the answers given by Juror 34 at the sealed October 24, 2014 hearing were vague and generalized without much more specificity than the information contained in Juror 34’s affidavit. That affidavit was admittedly prepared by defense counsel and signed by Juror 34. “Throughout the sealed proceedings held on alleged juror misconduct, the Court only uncovered one juror who could be termed biased: Juror 34. Juror 34 stated that Juror 34 was emotional during a conversation with Wilkerson following the conclusion of this case and felt personally responsible for Wilkerson’s conviction,” Sands continued. “The Court declines to assign any weight to Juror 34’s testimony due to that Juror’s expressed bias in favor of Wilkerson.”