Stewart and Michael Parnell will be guests of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons tonight (Monday, Sept. 21, 2015). Mary Wilkerson apparently was given the option of reporting. The long Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) tragedy is over. The deadly Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak PCA products caused back in 2008-09 will take its place in history, with nine deaths and probably thousands sickened. Here’s how it ended: Stewart Parnell, a second-generation chief executive of a family-owned peanut enterprise who once served on the national Peanut Standards Board, was sentenced to a 28-year prison term on Monday for a series of criminal charges that amounted to his knowing that the peanut products he was shipping were contaminated with potentially deadly Salmonella.

Stewart Parnell (right) and Daniel Lightsey appeared before a House subcommittee on Feb. 11, 2009.
His peanut broker brother, Michael Parnell, whom the court viewed as a manager in the criminal enterprise, was sentenced to 20 years, and Mary Wilkerson, a former PCA quality assurance manager, was sentenced to five years in a federal women’s prison. The Parnells were taken into custody following the sentences and were not allowed bond, while Wilkerson was allowed to go home after posting bond. They plan to appeal. U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands said that, in the end, the case was not about murder, even though nine people died from the poisoned peanuts. He said that the acts involved were driven by the desire for profit and to protect profits despite known risks, something which he noted is “commonly and accurately referred to as greed.” Sands has presided over the criminal case since February 2013, when Stewart Parnell and four other defendants were named in a 76-count felony indictment involving charges of conspiracy, fraud, and shipping food that was contaminated and misbranded. On Monday, Sands presided over the end of the case, at least from the trial court’s perspective. Sands allowed family and friends of the Parnells and Wilkerson to give testimony as character witnesses, and time was also set aside for victims of the outbreak to make statements. Ten-year old Jacob Hurley, sickened in the outbreak when he was three years old, was there to tell the judge that, when it comes to Stewart Parnell, “I think its OK for him to spent the rest of his life in prison.” And Jeff Almer, who lost his mother to the outbreak in December 2008, addressed Stewart Parnell by saying, “You took my mom, you kicked her right off the cliff.”
Judge W. Louis Sands
U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands
The Parnell brothers each took the stand to apologize to the victims. Stewart Parnell apologized to “his consumers,” even though PCA has long since ceased to exist, and it’s very unlikely that he will ever sell another peanut again. Beth Falwell, the sister of Stewart and Michael Parnell, was removed from the courtroom, apparently for making obscene gestures to the outbreak victims. Another member of the Parnell family was warned about objectionable behavior during previous court appearances. Shortly after the indictment was unsealed, defense attorneys and government prosecutors agreed that it would be processed as a “complex case.” There were many side roads, such as Stewart Parnell’s unsuccessful attempt to put forth a attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) defense. Before trial finally began in July 2014, the government peeled off two of the former managers at PCA’s peanut processing plant in Blakely, GA, to testify against the Parnells and Wilkerson. The first, former plant operations manager Daniel Kilgore, had made a deal with the government before the others were indicted. Then Samuel Lightsey, the former Blakely plant manager who was at Stewart Parnell’s side when the pair decided not to testify before Congress in the midst of the 2008-09 outbreak, also cut a deal. Kilgore and Lightsey were key government witnesses during the trial, testifying for about 10 days and helping prosecutors get much of their evidence properly introduced. Kilgore and Lightsey are scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 1 and likely will do better than the trio who went to trial. Kilgore’s deal with the government is that he will serve no more than 12 years in prison, and Lightsey’s is for no more than six years. The sentences Sands imposed on the three defendants convicted by a jury about a year ago are by far the most severe criminal sanctions ever imposed on American food executives over food safety. “Honestly, I think the fact that [Stewart Parnell] was prosecuted at all is a victory for consumers,” said Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler. “Although his sentence is less than the maximum, it is the longest sentence ever in a food poisoning case.” He added via Twitter, “This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through board rooms across the U.S.” Marler, who represented most of those injured by PCA peanut products in separate civil litigation, said it is not uncommon to see prosecutors pass on taking criminal action after foodborne illness outbreaks. (Marler is also the publisher of Food Safety News.) “This sentence shows that the courts are willing to drop the boom on white collar criminal defendants whose elevation of profits over safety go so far as to kill people,” said white-collar criminal law expert Rena Steinzor. “Parnell ordered the shipment of peanut paste contaminated by salmonella that not only killed nine people, but also produced one of the biggest recalls in food safety history. His factory was a disgusting place, with broken equipment, a leaking roof, and rodent droppings throughout. Hopefully, this kind of prosecution will motivate the Congress to fully fund FDA efforts to prevent such tragedies.”

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