Stewart Parnell is the most reviled character from one of food safety’s worst tragedies.
By their convictions and sentencing, Stewart Parnell, 69, and brother Michael Parnell, 64, respectfully still have 15 and 8 years before their prison release dates.
Their jury convictions and trial judge rulings were all upheld by the Appellate Court in 2018.
Nine deaths were associated with the outbreak.
Those nine had families that miss them to this day. Those families see Stewart Parnell as a despicable character whose reckless disregard for life caused the death of their loved ones.
But for now, about to start its fifth year, Stewart Parnell has played the last card he has left. It’s been called the “Great Writ” of habeas corpus. It is a fundamental right in the Constitution that protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment. In Latin, it means “show me the body.” Habeas corpus is supposed to safeguard individual freedom against arbitrary executive power.
Stewart Parnell’s Habeas corpus petition was filed on Sept. 6, 2019. After being denied on. Sept. 23, 2022, by the trial judge for the federal District Court, the 11th Circuit took up Parnell’s Habeas petition on appeal.
And the Appellate Court has issued Parnell a “certificate of appealability” on two issues. Those are jury prejudice and ineffective assistance of counsel. With deep experience in federal appeals, Savannah Attorney Amy Lee Copeland has recently filed a 68-page appellate brief for Stewart Parnell and followed it with a few hundred pages of appendix.
The Parnell appeal includes mounds of local, state, and national media stories to illustrate the climate from the outbreak through the trial. Copeland said about 8,000 were in the jury pool in the Court’s Albany Division at the time of the trial.
This is a lot to digest, but it all boils the case down.
“The nine deaths did not come into evidence at trial,” Attorney Copeland writes. “The government agreed not to introduce that evidence.” Two who knew about the deaths entered the jury and into juror deliberations.
It breaks down into whether those nine deaths couldn’t be put aside in a community with the peanut industry too damaged by the Salmonella outbreak blamed entirely on Stewart Parnell’s Peanut Corporation of America.
Criminal charges were not brought for four years after the outbreak, but .jury selection showed that 60 percent of the prospective jurors knew about the case.
In testimony two years ago, an Albany peanut broker said the Salmonella outbreak at PCA “devastated” the industry. “The sentiment in the local community was ‘under attack by the media,’ especially after reports of death resulting from the salmonella ‘hit the fan,’ ” according to the appellate brief.
Parnell’s trial attorneys did not seek a change of venue for the original jury trial. His defense team members all testified at an evidentiary hearing two years ago. They thought Albany would be the friendliest venue for the PCA trial, but they may have misread the public badly.
The 2014 jury trial was held in Albany, GA, where 60 percent of America’s peanuts are grown within a 150-mile radius. PCA’s peanut processing plant in Blakely, GA, was 65 miles away.
A change of venue is not required if prospective jurors are merely exposed to facts of a case, but only if “inflammatory, prejudicial pretrial publicity “ pervades or saturates the community making a fair trial “virtually impossible.”
Parnell has established “a presumption of jury prejudice,” according to Copeland. “The Sixth Amendment secures criminal defendants the right to trial by an impartial jury,” she said.
And when the deaths were not allowed to be even mentioned at trial, Copeland says jurors were using terms like “fry them” and “hang” and “exact a pound of flesh” as they convicted Parnell on 67 of 68 counts against him.
Many of us remember from our Civil War history that President Lincoln suspended the Writ so certain Rebels could not escape the military’s jurisdiction. The Lincoln suspension ended after four years when the Civil War was over. Parnell’s Writ, however, will go on a bit longer.
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