In a legal move that, if successful, could significantly reduce sentences for Stewart and Michael Parnell, defense attorneys in the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) criminal case have presented arguments that individual victims of an outbreak of foodborne illness are not “crime victims” under federal law. The sentencing recommendation that could see Stewart Parnell spending the rest of his life in federal prison is based on a 250-plus victim enhancement, a calculation that adds six levels to the total sentence under federal guidelines. pcaSign_406x250A jury a year ago convicted Stewart Parnell on 67 federal felony counts, mostly involving fraud and conspiracy. Likewise, a 50-plus victim enhancement for Michael Parnell takes him up four levels on the sentencing guideline grid. He was convicted on 30 federal felony counts, similar to his brother’s convictions. With 50-plus victims, he would be looking at 17 to just under 23 years in federal prison. Defense attorneys for the Parnell brothers moved Tuesday to exclude victim testimony from the upcoming Sept. 21 sentencing hearing, stating that “… the only victims that have ever been identified by the government consist of a couple dozen corporate entities that the government claims were defrauded out of money by PCA and the defendants.” And, they claim, victims of the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that led to the criminal investigation of PCA are not “crime victims” under the Crime Victim’s Right Act (CVRA). They argue that a “crime victim” under the CVRA is a “person directly or proximately harmed as a result of the commission of a Federal offense.” The defense attorneys also attacked the way federal prosecutors pursued the case. “The government did not allege that PCA or the defendants obtained money from consumers,” they argue. “Thus, the offense behavior focused on defrauding customers of PCA, not consumers. As the testimony and evidence illustrated at trial, most of PCA’s customers significantly altered or transformed PCA’s products into an entirely different consumer good. This case was not about PCA’s products being shipped or sold directly to consumers. “Rather,” they continue, “PCA’s customers took possession of the goods, undertook their own processing, and then sold the product to a consumer. Therefore, the harm resulting from the offense conduct runs to PCA’s customers, not end consumers that are buying a product from the producer of that good represented and warranted to be safe for consumption.” The outbreak victim cannot overcome the “causation” hurdle to be considered a “crime victim” under the CVRA, the defense attorneys argue. The law requires showing that the harm would not have occurred “but for” the defendant’s commission of a criminal offense. “Here the individuals claiming illness or death of a loved one cannot establish that the illness or death occurred because of fraud,” they assert. “No one, however, has seen, much less reviewed, the complete medical records of the alleged victims, nor has this court, or anyone else for that matter, been presented with any evidence from medical doctors or medical examiners about the supposed illnesses, the source of the illness, or even the existence of any active infections,” they continue. The defense argues that without evidence of Salmonella infection for an individual victim, there can be no “but for causation.” Finally, the defense attorneys argue that the government never presented evidence of individual illnesses caused by PCA, therefore no one fits the definition of a “crime victim.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)