He’s a senior citizen held for a white-collar crime, but the government has no interest in releasing him early to free up some cell space. On the contrary, an assistant U.S. Attorney filed a vigorous Appellee’s Brief in opposition to Stewart Parnell’s nearly 4-year petition seeking to overturn his conviction and sentence.
Parnell is the former chief executive of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America. In late 2008, a nationwide salmonella outbreak sickened about 20,000 people in 46 states, causing nine deaths and 166 hospitalizations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the outbreak to Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which operated a manufacturing facility in Blakely, GA, among other locations.
Parnell is seeking relief from a 2014 jury conviction that resulted in his 28-year prison sentence related to PCA’s responsibility for the outbreak. The U.S. Court of Appeals is hearing his Habeas Corpus petition for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta.
After the government’s brief was filed, Parnell’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, requested more time to file a reply and was granted a due date of Nov. 12, 2023.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia denied the petition without certifying any appeals. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court, however, has allowed the appeal to go forward on two questions. They are:
1. Did the district court err in determining that Parnell could not establish a presumption of jury prejudice based on adverse pretrial publicity, under Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358 (2010)?
2. Does a showing of presumed jury prejudice, under Skilling, operate to establish both prongs of ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on counsel’s failure to move for a venue change?
Walker, the assistant U.S. attorney on the case, said that the outbreak investigation involving PCA “revealed a broader criminal scheme. Parnell and others conspired to defraud PCA’s customers by concealing that its products had tested positive for salmonella and were produced under unsanitary conditions.
“PCA and Parnell assured many customers that its products were made ‘following good manufacturing practice, ‘were not ‘adulterated or misbranded, or unsafe within the meaning of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,’ and were ‘free of any foreign materials, or any substances which are poisonous, pathogenic, unlawful, toxic or in any way injurious.’ ” (ECF No. 565 at 24-25, Gov’t Ex. 46-16.)
“But in reality — and at Parnell’s direction — PCA knowingly shipped or released products to customers before receiving the results of microbiological testing. PCA knowingly shipped products that tested positive for salmonella or were outside microbiological specifications by repeatedly retesting peanut products until negative results were achieved.”
Walker’s brief includes the names and addresses of five pages of people who were victims of PCA’s illegal practices.
He argues that the district court correctly denied Parnell’s petition, saying that his trial counsel provided effective representation and that he suffered no prejudice as the defendant.
His trial team did not seek to change the venue of the jury trial from Albany, GA, but that decision was not “constitutionally deficient,” according to the assistant U.S. Attorney, and did not prejudice Parnell.
Walker says an impartial jury convicted Parnell. Half the jurors had heard nothing about the case before being called for duty, and the panel did not show signs of bias.
As for news coverage, Walker says the coverage “was largely factual, not invidious or inflammatory, and most reports cited by Parnell were from 2009 during or immediately after the outbreak, a half decade before the 2014 trial.
The jury was drawn from an 18-county area with a population of more than 350,000. The jury did acquit Parnell on one count, and Walker says the record “rebuts any presumed prejudice, and the district court found that Parnell’s 12 jurors were impartial. “Found, as a fact, that the decision of Parnell’s counsel not to move, not to change venue, was part of a trial strategy, and veteran trial lawyers found that decision reasonable.”
The government’s brief also points out that the Magistrate judge who held a hearing on Parnell’s petition found that his trial lawyer’s decision not to seek a change of venue was part of a “trial strategy” that veteran trial lawyers found to be reasonable.
Michael Parnell, Stewart’s peanut broker brother, who was convicted by the same jury and sentenced to 20 years, also filed a Motion 2255 petition at about the same time. It was denied by the District Court March 30. His appeal to the 11th Circuit is running several steps behind Stewart’s. The attorney for Michael Parnell has been granted an extension of time for his next filing.
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