Samuel Lightsey, the one-time operations manager for the Peanut Corporation of America’s processing plant in Blakely, GA, is out of prison with a new job at a company equipping the peanut industry.

Lightsey, left, and Parnell
Samuel Lightsey, left, and Stewart Parnell.

Another key figure in the PCA Salmonella saga, 43-year-old Mary Wilkerson, wants to be released from prison pending the outcome of her appeal, which her attorney now insists is strong enough to win her a new trial. The married mother of two wants to be home for her oldest son’s high school graduation.

Lightsey, 52, who went from running PCA’S peanut processing plant in Blakely, GA to the government’s star witness in criminal prosecutions of PCA executives, is out of prison and working for Baxley Blowpipe in nearby Dothan, AL. Among multiple innovations, Baxley is known for its dust pollution controls for the peanut industry.

Lightsey was indicted in February 2013 on 76 federal violations along with PCA Executive Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael Parnell, and Wilkerson, who was an administrative aide who also did some quality control work for the company. An operations manager who was charged separately,Daniel Kilgore, 48, and Lightsey exchanged their testimony against the others who faced a 2014 jury trial for their own lighter sentences in a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

Lightsey ended up pleading guilty to seven counts and was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Food Safety News reported May 1 that Lightsey had been assigned to a residential re-entry program the federal Bureau of Prisons runs out of Atlanta, but his exact status was unknown until he updated his Facebook page last month. His release date is listed as Oct. 1, 2017, but the re-entry program has a wide range of options for inmates assigned to it, including home confinement.

Wilkerson wants out
In her recent court filings, Wilkerson is using Lightsey’s new found freedom among arguments for her own release pending appeal. She’s being held at a minimum security women’s prison camp in Marianna, FL, about an hour from her home.

Wilkerson was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice in the original indictment, and was acquitted by the jury on one count. Her attorney, Thomas G. Ledford of Albany, GA, believes the government prevented her acquittal on the second charge by a “dump” of “at least 8 to 15 million pages of documents” on the defense, that continued until the start of the trial. Ledford says it was an “effort to hide the exculpatory and relevant evidence.”

Her lawyer is making his second attempt to gain her release before her appeals are settled. She’s been incarcerated just short of 19 months of a five-year sentence. Federal release dates are based on a “good time” credit, which in Wilkerson’s case would mean she’d serve four years and four months for a March 10, 2020 release.

But Ledford insists it is now likely that Wilkerson’s appeal will result in reversal or an order for a new trial, or reduced sentence and that since she is not a flight risk, and the appeal is not just for purpose of delay, she qualifies for release on bail.

Wilkerson is married, with two sons, ages 12 and 17, with roots in her South Georgia community, Ledford says. Her 17-year-old son will graduate from high school on May 19, and her release on bail would allow her to attend the ceremony. Ledford also says his client further qualifies because she has no history of violence or crimes and does not poise a danger to anyone else in the community.

The attorney also pointed out that Wilkerson was not held responsible for any personal injury or financial losses as were the others in the PCA criminal case. The “obstruction” charges against her concerned the investigation that resulted after the PCA plant in Blakely was found responsible for a nationwide Salmonella outbreak in 2008-09 that sickened thousands and killed at least nine.

“The status of one of the co-defendants in this case, Samuel Lightsey (government used as a key witness) who had plead guilty to several felony charges which had a minimum sentence of 10 years received only a three-year sentence and the sentence has changed and apparently he is no longer in prison,” Ledford writes in his latest filing for the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Mr. Lightsey admittedly stated in his trial testimony that he was performing illegal acts with the assistance of lab technician, Catina Hardrick, and had discussed these acts with her but significantly not with the appellant,” Ledford wrote in court documents. “He stated he quickly removed Wilkerson out of the Q.A. Manger position back to secretary/office clerk position when he took the position of Operations Manager with PCA approximately two weeks after Mary Wilkerson was placed in Q.A. as he had determined she was not qualified or trained for the position in Quality Assurance (Q.A.)

“Mr. Lightsey had many years experience in Quality Assurance and extensive training before becoming Operations Manager for the PCA Plant and assumed the Q.A. manager duties, as well, upon Wilkerson’s removal, showing he knew what he was doing with Ms. Hardwick was illegal but still continued doing it without regard for harm or losses to others.”

Ledford says Lightsey “has served less time than anyone” involved in the PCA criminal prosecutions, which appears to be true. However, the defense lawyer seems to be confused about Lightsey’s release under the re-entry program, which occurred in 2017, not 2016 as he claims in the documents. In April 2016 Food Safety News reported Lightsey was incarcerated at a federal prison in Arkansas.

After Lightsey and Wilkerson, Kilgore’s release date from Oakdale, LA, federal prison is Jan. 30, 2012. Like Lightsey, he pleaded guilty in exchange for his trial testimony.

Like Wilkerson, Stewart and Michael Parnell are also appealing their convictions and sentences in the 11th Circuit. The brothers have each asked once and been denied release on bail earlier in the appeal process.

Stewart Parnell, 62, is being held at the federal prison at Estill, SC, on a 28-year sentence with a release date of Feb. 6, 2040. Michael Parnell, 58, is in federal prison in Milan, MI, doing a 20-year sentence with a release date of Feb. 17, 2033.

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