Historic Food Poisoning Prison Sentences Will StandFebruary 1, 2018
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed prison sentences for Stewart and Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson, formerly of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). If you missed our earlier coverage of this historic case (here and here), PCA was responsible for a salmonella outbreak that killed at least nine people and sickened thousands in 2009.
In 2014, Stewart and Michael Parnell were convicted of fraudulently introducing misbranded (and, in Michael’s case, also adulterated) food into interstate commerce, interstate shipment and wire fraud, and conspiring to commit those crimes. Stewart and Mary Wilkerson were convicted of obstruction of justice. Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison followed by three years supervised release, Michael Parnell was sentenced to 20 years in prison followed by three years supervised release, and Mary Wilkerson was sentenced to 5 years in prison followed by two years supervised release. All three Defendants challenged their convictions and sentences on various grounds before the District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, and subsequently appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
The Eleventh Circuit carefully dispensed with the Defendants’/Appellants’ arguments, indicating that they raised no significant legal issues. The Court’s opinion stated at the outside that it “applied only established law” to the facts, and thus was “written only for the benefit of the parties.” Nevertheless, the Court went into particular detail about the Defendants’ collective claim that the jury’s verdict was tainted by extrinsic evidence of deaths caused by the salmonella outbreak (this evidence was excluded from the trial). Despite finding that individual jurors had, in fact, learned of the deaths during the trial and discussed those deaths during jury deliberations, the Court concluded, among other things, that (1) the District Court did not clearly err in refusing to credit the testimony of one juror who had expressed a bias towards Mary Wilkerson in the past, and (2) the weight of the evidence against the Defendants was such that the additional knowledge about the deaths did not influence or contribute to the verdict. Defendants’/Appellants’ other evidentiary and procedural arguments also failed.
While it is possible that the Parnells and Wilkerson will petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review, and/or petition the Eleventh Circuit for rehearing or hearing en banc, the chances that either court will grant such petitions are relatively slim. Therefore, this may well be the end of the line for Defendants– they will continue to serve out historic prison sentences. Despite the particularly egregious nature of the case, they may also serve as a cautionary tale.