Before he left for the weekend, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands did his own calculations for the maximum prison sentences that he may impose on three Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) defendants come Monday morning. Here’s where he came down:

  • For Stewart Parnell, former chief executive officer of the now-defunct PCA, his offense level is 47 under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, Sands wrote. Parnell’s maximum sentence under the guideline range is 9,636 months, or 803 years of imprisonment. A life term in prison was recommended earlier by the U.S. Probation Office.  A jury last year found Parnell guilty of 68 federal felonies.
  • For Michael Parnell, Stewart Parnell’s peanut broker brother, the offense level is 38 and the sentencing guideline range is 235 to 293 months, or 19.5 to 24.4 years of imprisonment. The jury found him guilty of 30 federal felonies.
  • For Mary Wilkerson, who went from being a receptionist to manager of quality control at PCA’s Blakely, GA, peanut processing plant, her offense level is 30 and her statutory maximum term of imprisonment is 5 years, or 60 months.  The jury found her guilty on one of two counts of obstruction of justice, also a felony.

Individuals who have filed victim impact statements will have a right to testify at the sentencing hearing on Monday, the judge ruled. Under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, he stated that they are not considered government witnesses, but they have an independent right to be heard.

Judge W. Louis Sands
U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands
Sands noted that the only two remaining issues for attorneys to argue at the sentencing hearing on Monday are the role the sentencing factors should play, including to what extent the offense conduct falls outside of the “heartland” of cases described in the guidelines, and any restitution the court may require. Sands stated that while restitution may not be mandatory in this case, it might be necessary. Among the judge’s other rulings contained in three orders issued on Friday, Sept. 18:

  • The government met its burden “by a preponderance of the evidence” that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson should be accountable under the guidelines for more than $100 million but less than $200 million (in financial losses), and that Michael Parnell should be accountable under the guidelines for more than $20 million but less than $50 million in losses (by PCA’s business customers).
  • The government met its burden in finding that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson harmed more than 250 victims, and that Michael Parnell harmed more than 50 victims.
  • Stewart and Michael Parnell’s offenses involved the conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury. Sands found that also applies to Wilkerson.
  • Stewart Parnell was found to be a leader or organizer of the criminal activity, and Michael Parnell was a manager or supervisor.

Each of the judge’s findings increased the offense levels of the defendants, which has the effect of increasing the terms of imprisonment. He was unmoved by objections, such as those made by Stewart Parnell, who “maintains his innocence and did not act as an organizer or leader of any criminal activity.” “”Stewart Parnell was convicted of sixty-eight felony counts,” Sands’ order states. “As such, his assertion of his innocence is no longer a matter for this Court to consider. The testimony and emails introduced at trial demonstrate that Stewart Parnell was intimately involved with the production of peanut products at the PCA Blakely facility and directed the actions of every person at that facility.” Sands was also unmoved by Stewart Parnell’s trial assertions that everyone at the time thought that roasting peanuts was a “kill step” for Salmonella. “No peanut broker testified that they should ship peanut products that tested positive for salmonella,” Sands wrote. “No one testified that they would ship peanut products in a manner that exposed the peanuts to filth, including the outdoor elements, mold, and animal feces. No one looked at the pictures of the conditions of PCA and testified that those conditions were an appropriate environment in which to store peanuts. While Stewart Parnell again attempts to paint his actions as reasonable in light of what was known at the time, he cannot escape his emails admitted at evidence at trial that demonstrated he knew peanut products contained salmonella and shipped those products anyway.” The judge stated that Stewart Parnell “was not a lay person in the context of salmonella and peanut product manufacturing,” and while Salmonella may sometimes only cause minor injuries, it was commonly understood in the industry that “salmonella was dangerous and could kill people.” In ruling once again not to dismiss the charges or order a new trial, Sands also ordered Wilkerson’s court-appointed attorney, Thomas C. Ledford, to “refrain from filing further motions that reassert the same claims, issues and/or arguments that have already been explicitly denied by the Court either as untimely or on the merits. Wilkerson will have the opportunity to appeal any and all of the Court’s determinations during the course of this case after sentencing and entry of judgement.” After a four-year investigation led by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the defendants were named in a 76-count felony indictment in February 2013 and went to a jury trial in July 2014. The charges included fraud and conspiracy, along with selling misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce. The charges stemmed from the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak which sickened thousands of people and likely contributed to the deaths of nine of them. Peanut butter and peanut paste produced by PCA was found to be the source of the outbreak.

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