In the nearly four years that brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell have pursued federal Writs of Habeas Corpus, the procedure has not given them much encouragement. But that may be changing as petitions for both men have arrived at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

Stewart and Michael Parnell were convicted by a 2014 jury trial in Albany, GA. Both were associated with the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America, which was found responsible for the 2008-09 multistate Salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed several.

For their multiple felony convictions, Steward Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison, and Michael Parnell was sentenced to 20 years.

The Parnells filed petitions for federal Writs of Habeas Corpus, under 18 U.S.C. §2254, which is for those in federal custody. The Latin phrase “habeas corpus” translates into “you have the body.” A petition for the writ claims someone is being detained against their constitutional rights. A Habeas Corpus petition claims the arrest, sentence, or trial violated constitutional law, making imprisonment unlawful.

Ineffective assistance of trial counsel is the most common issue cited in Habeas Corpus petitions and both of the Parnell brothers have raised that claim.

Stewart was first to file on Sept. 6, 2019. His attorneys wrote: “Stewart Parnell owned the Peanut Corporation of America (“PCA”), a peanut processing plant in Blakely, Georgia – a small town in southwest Georgia 48 miles southwest of Albany.

“In 2014, Mr. Parnell was convicted of conspiracy, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce, interstate shipments fraud, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice stemming from a salmonella outbreak tied to PCA. After an unsuccessful direct appeal, United States v. Parnell, 723 Fed. Appx. 745 (11th Cir. 2018), Mr. Parnell now shows that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to move for a change of venue or to strike jurors for cause who knew about allegations of deaths resulting from the salmonella outbreak.”

Michael Parnell filed his Habeus Corpus petition about a month later.

After filing their petitions, the Parnells each scored a victory when the Magistrate Judge decided the issues raised were worthy of an evidentiary hearing. Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff for the Middle District of Georgia presided over the hearings in late May 2021 in the same Albany, GA, courthouse where the Parnells were convicted.

Federal marshals delivered the Parnells to the evidentiary hearings and they were able to trade witness and exhibit lists. But after it was all over, Langstaff ruled against their petitions in his recommendation to the Middle District of Georgia, and the trial judge, W. Louis Sands, agreed.

The final denial by the Middle District of Georgia left an appeal to the 11th Circuit as the next option. Stewart Parnell’s petition arrived there first and it has already cleared one big obstacle by winning a motion “for a certificate of appealability.”

While “granted in part,” U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew L. Brasher has permitted Stewart Parnell to appeal on two important issues:

1.) whether the distinct court erred in determining that Parnell could not establish a presumption of jury prejudice, based on adverse pretrial publicity, under Skilling v. United States; and

2.) whether a showing of presumed jury prejudice under Skilling, operates to establish both prongs of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, based on the counsels’ failure to move for a change of venue.

Amy Copeland, with Rouse & Copeland in Savannah, GA, is Stewart Parnell’s attorney for the Habeus Corpus petition. Her next deadline for filing the appellant’s brief is June 26, about two weeks from now.

Michael Parnell’s appeal to the 11th Circuit was filed on May 26. He is represented by two Virginia attorneys, Elliott M. Harding and William J. Dinkin.

Before taking his petition up to the Atlanta court, Michael Parnell was successful in getting his conviction record corrected by the Middle District. At the suggestion of his Bureau of Prisons (BOP) case manager, Parnell’s Introduction of Adulterated Food offenses was corrected to “Introduction of Misbranded Food.”

It was Nov. 10, 2008, when the CDC’s PulseNet staff first noted a small and highly dispersed multistate cluster of 13 Salmonella Typhimurium isolates with an unusual DNA fingerprint or pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern reported from 12 states. By  April 20, 2009, 714 people in  46 states were confirmed with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium associated with the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) facility in Blakely, GA. Nine deaths were a direct result of the outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Criminal charges related to the outbreak were filed in 2013 against five PCA managers and executives. Only the Parnell brothers remain in federal custody.

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