Harsher sentences could be imposed in three weeks if the trial judge in the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) criminal case decides that the defendants were conscious, or accepting, of reckless risk of death or bodily injury in committing the crimes they stand convicted of by a jury. U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands has signaled that his decision is coming shortly on whether the defendants will get a “two level” increase under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. “The Court intends to issue an Order in advance of the Sept 21, 2015 sentencing hearing that will make conclusive findings as to Defendants Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson regarding loss amount number of victims, and appropriateness of a two-level increase under the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) … for the conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury, role adamants under U.S.S.G. acceptance of responsibility, and the appropriateness of an offense level increase for obstruction of justice.” The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that set out a uniform sentencing policy for convicted defendants in the U.S. federal court system. The guidelines determine sentences based primarily on two factors: (1) the conduct associated with the offense (which produces the “offense level”), and (2) the defendant’s criminal history (the “criminal history category”). “The evidentiary hearing and briefing on those matters have concluded, and the Courts’ findings will be forthcoming,” Sands wrote. “Thus, after the Court issues its Order, the only two remaining issues to be considered at the sentencing hearings will be (1) restitution and (2) the role the sentencing factors listed at 18 U.S.C.S 3353 should play in the Defendants’ sentences, and specifically where any Defendants’ offense conduct falls outside the ‘heartland’ of cases involving the conduct described in the guidelines.” The court’s probation unit, which conducts Pre-Sentence Investigative Reports (PSRs) and applies the sentencing guidelines, has already recommended a life sentence for Stewart Parnell, who was chief executive officer for the now-defunct PCA, and a range of 17.5 to 21.8 years in prison for Michael Parnell, his peanut broker brother, and eight to 10 years for Mary Wilkerson, the former quality control officer for PCA’s Blakely, GA, peanut processing plant. Sands’ promise to issue the order shortly dealing with the sentencing issues came as he once again denied requests from Wilkerson for copies of the jury trial transcript involving 13 different witnesses. “Wilkerson asserts that she needs the specifically referenced transcripts to ‘refute the PSR and the Government’s Response to the Defendant’s objections to the PSP, as well as the Victim Impact Statements and possible Government witnesses at the upcoming Sentencing Hearings,’” Sand wrote in the order denying Wilkerson’s requests, adding, “The Government has stated that it intends to ‘put on live victim testimony and to refer to victim impact statements at the Defendants’ sentencing.’” Wilkerson is represented by a court-appointed attorney, and her requests for various transcripts are essentially requests for public expenditures. Sands last approved payment for Wilkerson getting a transcript of the testimony of FDA Agent Robert Nelligan last July 20 even though he said that, “Wilkerson failed to articulate how Nelligan’s testimony would be helpful to her response to the Pre-sentence Investigative Report …. .” On four different occasions, the judge has said that he provided what information Wilkerson had to provide in order to obtain payment for more witness testimony, but that her counsel has failed to provide it. For that reason, her motion for more transcripts was “dismissed with prejudice,” which is legalese for “do not ask again.” Sands said Wilkerson should have begun each request by explaining how any of the testimonies would have specifically helped her case, and she has not done that. A 76-count indictment in the case was brought four years after a multistate outbreak of Salmonella connected to peanut butter and peanut paste from PCA processing facilities in Blakely and Plainview, TX. That outbreak was associated with thousands of illnesses and at least nine deaths. Two other PCA employees, former plant manager Samuel Lightsey and former operations manager Daniel Kilgore, were also charged but pleaded guilty before trial under agreements that saw them become government witnesses. They are to be sentenced Oct. 1.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)