Brothers Stewart Parnell, 66, and Michael Parnell, 62, have, respectively, another 18 and 11 years to serve in federal prisons for their 2014 jury convictions involving Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).
But with so-called “2255” evidentiary hearings now scheduled, on April 20 for Michal and on May 25 for Stewart, the early release of both men is a possible outcome. Their trial was in relation to a deadly Salmonella outbreak traced to their peanut products.
By getting evidentiary hearings on their motions to “Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct” their sentences, the Parnells have secured something many others do not get.
United States Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff has agreed to hear the motions in the same Albany, GA, courthouse where the Parnells were convicted and sentenced.
Section 2255, according to Judge Langstaff, provides that:
“a prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.”
Langstaff further explained that if a prisoner’s Section 2255 claim is found to be valid, the court “shall vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate.”
He also says that pursuant to Section 2255:
“Unless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the court shall cause notice thereof to be served upon the United States attorney, grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto.”
By getting this far, the Parnells have met the burden of showing that the evidentiary hearings are needed to dispose of the Section 2255 motions.
“A federal habeas corpus petitioner is entitled to an evidentiary hearing if he alleges facts which, if proven, would entitle him to relief,” the judge said in quoting the case Birt v. Montgomery.
The court says the petitioner, Michael Parnell, “raises a total of four (4) grounds for relief.” The grounds are:
Ground 1 of the Motion to Vacate — Petitioner alleges that he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel because his lawyer failed to seek a venue change based on adverse pretrial publicity and pervasive hostility toward the petitioner’s company in the surrounding area.
Ground 2 — Petitioner alleges that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to move to strike for cause any jurors who had knowledge of deaths related to the salmonella outbreak.
Ground 3 — Petitioner alleges that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to independently investigate juror prejudice once improper influence became known post-trial.
Ground 4 — Petitioner alleges that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to investigate and call witnesses who would have materially discredited the government’s key witnesses.
The judge was specific in his response.
“To obtain relief from a conviction based on constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show both that counsel’s performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defendant,” the judge said.
“The court finds that the record does not conclusively show that the petitioner’s claims fail and that petitioner is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his claims. Petitioner has alleged facts that, if proven, would entitle him to relief. We cannot say [that Petitioner’s] allegations at this stage are patently frivolous, based on unsupported generalizations, or affirmatively contradicted by the record. Neither can we say the record conclusively shows he is entitled to no relief?
“Although we conclude [petitioner] is entitled to an evidentiary hearing, we express no opinion about the merits of his claims. As our predecessor court spelled out, “[t]he point is that we do not know . . . whether [petitioner’s] allegations are indeed true and whether, as a consequence, he was unconstitutionally deprived of reasonably effective assistance of counsel.”
Stewart Parnell is making similar claims, especially concerning his allegedly having ineffective trial counsel.
Judge Langstaff has ordered the government to “produce” the petitioners for the hearing, but it’s not clear yet if that means the Parnells will get road trips to Albany, GA from their current federal lockups at Hazelton, SC, where Stewart is and Fort Dix, NJ, where Michael is imprisoned.
Pandemic uncertainties mean the parties have until March 29 and May 3 to ask for the hearings to be conducted by video teleconference.
In late 2008, peanut butter and peanut paste produced by PCA in south Georgia caused a multi-state Salmonella outbreak. In 2013, the Parnell brothers and three PCA managers were indicted. Two pleaded guilty and three, including the Parnells, were tried by a jury in 2014.
The 34-day jury trial found the Parnell brothers guilty of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud along with multiple counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. The trial judge sentenced Stewart Parnell to 28 years in federal prison, and Michael Parnell to 20.
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