Food Safety News has learned that brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell are quietly working for “compassionate release” under the First Step Act, which is a Trump-era prison reform that has seen thousands released from federal prisons.

The Parnells were convicted in a jury trial in 2014 for multiple federal felonies associated with a deadly 2008 Salmonella outbreak involving their Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, GA. A year after the trial, Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison, and Michael was sentenced to 20 years. Together, they have 29 years remaining on their sentences.

Their sentences amount to the most stringent penalties ever handed down for violations related to food safety.

While both brothers are seeking compassionate release, it is the 62-year old Michael who has managed to exhaust his administrative appeals with the Bureau of Prisons and place BOP’s denials going back to last April on the record. The BOP “response in opposition” was filed with a federal court in Georgia on Feb. 25.

Prior to the First Step Act, only BOP officials could file for compassionate release.  The new law permits inmates to file such petitions on their own. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Parnell filed and cited his deficient immune system, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. His initial requests were denied for not being qualified as extraordinary or compelling.

On appeal to Warden Ortiz at Fort Dix, Parnell was denied because only 30 percent of his sentence has been completed.

Parnell said the COVID-19 threat was sufficient for approval of compassionate release.

“In general, defendant now argues that his health conditions carry a high risk of serious complications from potential COVID-19  infection, and he’s entitled to compassionate release because of the outlying nature of Mr. Parnell’s sentence  relative to his involvement in the  offense,” according to the court filing.

At the federal lockup at Fort Dix, the BOP reports only one death from COVID-19.   Another 1,649 inmates have recovered and 192 have tested positive more recently.   The BOP managed COVID-19 risk by placing inmates in home confinement for the last six months or 10 percent of their sentences, whichever is shorter.

The warden denied Parnell’s request because he did not show extraordinary or compelling reasons to justify a compassionate release. The BOP maintains that COVID-19 doesn’t automatically entitle a prisoner to release. And because his appeal has gone on long enough, he got the two-shot Pfizer vaccine on Jan. 11, and Feb. 10, 2021.

The warden’s denial says none of Parnell’s medical conditions rise to the “level of being compelling and extraordinary  to warrant the  relief he seeks.” And the BOP notes that when courts grant compassionate release, usually there is a larger percentage of time served.

No court has yet to rule, however, on Michael Parnell’s compassionate release petition.  And while the documentation is not filed in Georgia’s Middle District, a file of Stewart’s petition is evidence that he too is pursuing compassionate release.

The brothers have each been successful in obtaining an evidentiary hearing to vacate their convictions and sentences. Those hearings are scheduled to occur back-to-back, beginning on May 24 for Stewart and to be followed on May 27 for Michael.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff will preside over both hearings, which will be held in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in Albany. That’s the same trial court that sentenced the Parnell brothers in 2015.

It will hear the 2255 motion to vacate for each defendant. It is not a “direct appeal,” but rather a Habeas Corpus “collateral appeal” claiming some mistake was made during the trial or sentencing and can only be made after other appeals are exhausted. It can include arguments about ineffective counsel, prosecution misconduct, newly discovered evidence, or substantial changes in law made retroactive by the Supreme Court.

Stewart Parnell’s 2255 petition makes several claims including:

  • His trial court counsel was ineffective for failing to move for a change of venue
    In their reply to the government, Parnell’s attorneys say the problems with the venue went beyond “adverse pretrial publicity.” Involved, they said, was a small, close-knit community with its local economy ruined by the salmonella outbreak “where many prospective jurors and even one who sat on the panel admitted to being directly impacted (financially and otherwise) by the peanut industry.”
  • His trial court counsel was infective in failing to strike for cause jurors with knowledge of deaths
    The government contends Parnell already lost this issue on direct appeal, but his attorneys say this is incorrect both legally and factually. They say “the government does not fully appreciate the danger of allowing a jury with knowledge of highly prejudicial extrajudicial facts to determine a defendant’s fate.”

Similar arguments are expected in the Michael Parnell hearing.

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