The trio was convicted by a federal jury in Albany, GA, in 2014 and sentenced a year later for their roles in the sale of contaminated peanut butter that caused a Salmonella outbreak, sickening thousands and killing nine in 2008-09.
The Parnells and Wilkerson have been waiting for more than two years to get their case before appellate judges. On Nov. 7, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the appeals that raise numerous issues of law or fact, any one of which could result in the setting aside of the convictions or sentences.
Most every twist and turn in the criminal prosecutions involving the now defunct Peanut Corporation of American (PCA) has been hotly contested, and oral arguments before the appeals court are no different.
The defense, represented by attorney Joseph R. Pope, has asked the court to provide each side with 40 minutes to make their arguments because the number of issues involved and “the extraordinary size of the record…”
While the defendants share some concerns, Pope says some points also have to be individually argued.
Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney John Alexander Romano thinks the 30 minutes planned for each side “will likely be more than sufficient to address the issues warranting attention at oral argument as well as the Court’s questions.”
But Romano is flexible about how long the clock should be allowed to run.
“Moreover, the court can always grant one or both parties additional time during the argument itself if it decides that additional time is necessary or would be useful – particularly as this case is the only case on the court’s calendar for Nov. 7, the scheduled argument date,” Romano wrote in response to Pope’s motion.
“The government, of course, defers to the court on whether it should grant 10 additional minutes of argument time. And the government will be prepared to present argument on Nov. 7 for as long as the court wants. But additional time seems unwarranted at this juncture.”
The U.S. government’s prosecution of former PCA executive officer Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael Parnell, and former employee Wilkerson has been in the federal court system for three months short of five years.
So far, the appellate court has denied requests seeking release of the three on bail pending the outcome of the appeal. It twice rejected to release Wilkerson, a secretary-receptionist who became quality assurance manager at PCA’s peanut processing plant in Blakely, GA.
In 2008-09 the facility was linked to 714 people infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium, reported from 46 states. At least nine deaths were due to the outbreak, and a 4-year investigation led by the FBI resulted in federal indictments in February 2013 against Wilkerson and the Parnell brothers.
Two other PCA managers cooperated with the federal investigation and negotiated plea agreements in exchange. They pleaded guilty and received special consideration at sentencing.
The Parnell brothers and Wilkerson faced a total of 76 counts at trial.
Stewart Parnell was found guilty on 67 counts, including conspiring to commit interstate-shipment and wire fraud, and conspiring to ship adulterated and misbranded foods in interstate commerce with the intent to defraud. His sentence is 28 years.
Michael Parnell’s conviction was on 31 counts, including the fraud and conspiring to ship misbranded foods in interstate commerce with the intent to defraud. His sentence is 20 years.
Wilkerson was found guilty of one count of obstructing justice and was sentenced to 5 years.
The three raised some serious questions with their appeals. Here’s how the government explained it earlier in the case:
“The defendants raise at least 10 claims in their opening briefs, including claims challenging the sufficiency of the evidence, alleging Brady violations and other instances of prosecutorial misconduct, challenging the admission of certain evidence and the exclusion of other evidence, alleging juror misconduct, and challenging various aspects of the defendants’ sentences.
“Some of the defendants’ claims, such as the alleged Brady violations and Wilkerson’s claim of denied access to pre-trial and trial transcripts, were the subject of multiple rulings by the district court, which must be summarized to provide appropriate context for the government’s response.
“Defendants’ juror-misconduct claim was the subject of a multi-day evidentiary hearing, which likewise must be summarized. And the comprehensive nature of defendants’ claims, in general, requires that the government prepare a thorough statement of facts discussing the evidence at trial, which the government’s brief can cross-reference, as appropriate, when responding to defense arguments – including that any alleged error was prejudicial and warrants reversal.”
A “Brady violation” occurs when the government fails to provide information to a defendant during the discovery phase of a case.
Both the defendants and the government have made their written arguments with each side being allowed to exceed the 42,000-word limit routinely imposed by the appellate courts.
The two former PCA managers who cooperated with government prosecutors, Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, were sentenced to three and six years, respectively, in federal prison. Lightsey was released last month. Kilgore remains at the low-security correctional institution at Oakdale, LA.
Lightsey and Kilgore gave up their rights to appeal in their deals with the government.
The appeals are the only chance the Parnells and Wilkerson have for getting released from prison early. For the 63-year old Stewart Parnell, his current release date from the federal medium-security lockup in Estill, SC, is not until 2040.
The 58-year old Michael Parnell is not due to be released from the minimum-security federal prison in Milan, MI until 2033.
The 48-year old Wilkerson won’t be released from the Marianna, FL correctional facility until Jan. 30, 2021.
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