More time and more words are being awarded for appellants who say they are working on “the most significant food safety case in the history of the United States. And its significance is matched only by its factual and legal complexity.”

Appellants Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell are getting a total of 3,000 additional words for their opening briefs, which are now due at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Nov. 25. The case is related to the deadly 2008-09  Salmonella Typhimurium traced to peanut butter from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

atlantacourthouse_406x250The new deadline is for all opening briefs in the cases, including the one for defendant May Wilkerson, a former PCA employee. Thomas G. Ledford, her court-appointed attorney, had asked for an extension to Nov. 18 from the original due date, which was Nov. 4.

The case involved multiple days of pretrial hearings, a trial that lasted two months, multiple days of post-trial hearings on a number of issues, including juror misconduct, multiple days of sentencing hearings, and a restitution hearing. The record spans tens of thousands of pages and features a number of extraordinarily complex legal and factual issues, Joseph R. Pope and Justin Lugar, attorneys, respectively, for Michael Parnell and Stewart Parnell told the appellate court.

They say the record of the criminal case at the trial court level “spans tens of thousands of pages and features a number of extraordinarily complex legal and factual issues.”

The Parnell brothers and Wilkerson are appealing their convictions and sentences for multiple felonies stemming from the Salmonella outbreak involving PCA’s peanut butter plant in Blakely, GA. Stewart Parnell was an owner and chief executive, and his brother Michael Parnell was a peanut broker involved with PCA. Wilkerson was the company’s quality control manager in Blakely.

In making the case to extend their joint brief, attorneys for the Parnell brothers point to “a disputed evidentiary ruling that affected nearly half the evidence offered at trial.” They said they needed the additional time to finalize arguments on the “many additional significant issues in this case.”

Pope, with the firm of Williams and Mullen in Richmond, and Lugar, with the firm Gentry Locke in Roanoke, say they’ve been working “at a frantic pace” to prepare their briefs.

Government attorneys headed up by John-Alex Romano from the Department of Justice’s criminal appeals division, did not object to the 3,000-word addition to the opening briefs from the Parnell brothers, nor to the extension of the filing deadline to Nov. 25.

However, in his separate request, Wilkerson’s attorney asked for a 9,000-word extension and the government asked the appellate court to hold it to 1,500 words. Ledford, an Albany, GA defense attorney, was unsuccessful in getting more than 1,500 additional words.

“This case can be uniquely distinguished from other federal criminal prosecutions of food safety cases since this case proceeded to trial against individuals employed by the company as felonies, was designated as complex and involved the production of millions of pages of meaningless discovery and numerous pretrial and post-trial motions challenging repetitive violations of the 4th, 5th, 6th and 14th Constitutional Amendments and due process,” Ledford wrote.

He said he needs more words to provide his client with “effective assistance of counsel.”

With each defendant getting an additional 1,500 words, the appellate briefs can include up to 46,500 words. Ledford agreed to give  3,000 words from his original allocation to the “common” brief for all three defendants. The 1,500 additional words he is being allocated now, leaves Ledford with 12,500 to work with for the brief that is specific to Wilkerson.

He claims he needs at least 20,000 words for that, but the government says what’s been allocated “is essentially adequate for Wilkerson to present her claims to the court.”

Background on the case
The deadly outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium in 2008-09 was the target of a five-year investigation led by the FBI. It finally turned into  a 76-count indictment on Feb. 15, 2013, against the Parnell brothers, Wilkerson, and two other PCA managers, Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore.

Before a two-month trial in July 2014 that convicted the Parnells and Wilkerson, Lightsey and Kilgore agreed to plead guilty and testify for the government against the others. A jury convicted the other three in September 2014, but they were not sentenced until a year later after court investigated possible jury misconduct during the trial.

The 62-year old Stewart Parnell is serving a 28-year federal prison term at Estill, SC. His 57-year-old brother Michael is doing 20 years at federal prison at Milan, MI. The 43-year old Wilkerson is locked up at the federal prison at Marianna, FL. She was sentenced to five years.

Stewart Parnell was convicted on 67 federal felony counts. Michael Parnell was convicted on 31. Wilkerson was convicted of one of the two counts she was charged with for obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to federal investigators.

The trio’s attorneys filed the appeals immediately after sentencing on Sept. 30, 2015. All three defendants sought to be released pending the outcome the appeal. All three of those requests were denied by the appellate bench.

The two former PCA managers who reached plea agreements with the government agreed not to appeal either there convictions or sentences.

Samuel Lightsey, who was the government’s star witness at trail and drew the shortest sentence at three years, is scheduled for release from Forrest City, AR next Oct. 1. Daniel Kilgore, who was sentence to a six-year term after cooperating, is doing his time at the federal facility at Oakdale, LA.

Peanut butter and peanut paste from the PCA Blakely, GA, plant caused thousands of Salmonella infections, but it was the nine deaths combined with Stewart’s Parnell’s casual attitude about negative testing results that caught the attention of federal officials.

PCA, which once had peanut production facilities in Georgia, Texas, and Virginia, was liquidated in federal bankruptcy proceedings during the year after the outbreak.

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