This February is the 10th anniversary of the criminal indictment of Peanut Corporation of America’s executives. And the two defendants who remain in federal custody are still actively pursuing release, meaning there have only been a few moments in the past decade when these cases have not been active.
The criminal prosecution of the PCA executives was a milestone in food safety as it meant the food industry was being held responsible for an outbreak that caused hundreds of illnesses and several deaths.
The legal action began in February 2013 when the federal indictments of Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Samuel Lightsey, and Mary Wilkerson were unsealed in a federal court in Albany, GA. A separate indictment for Daniel Kilgore was opened later.
During the four years after the multistate Salmonella outbreak that was linked to PCA peanut butter and paste made at its Georgia plant, little was revealed about the federal criminal investigation that was known to be underway. The unsealed indictments filled in the details.
February 2013 was a busy month. The defendants obtained attorneys, entered their pleas of not guilty and obtained conditions for release. Stewart Parnell, who was chief executive of the already bankrupt PCA, put down $100,000 as bail.
Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael, and Mary Wilkerson all went to a jury trial during the following summer. Wilkerson was PCA’s quality control officer. Lightsey and Kilgore, who were plant operations managers, both plead guilty in exchange for consideration from the government at sentencing.
The charges included conspiracy, Introduction of Adulterated Food into Interstate Commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, Introduction of Misbranded Food into Interstate Commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, Mail Fraud, Wire Fraud, and Obstruction of Justice.
Jury convictions would in sentences of 28 years for Stewart Parnell, 20 years for Michael Parnell, and 5 years for Wilkerson. As for the two who took guilty pleas, Kilgore was sentenced to 6 years and Lightsey’s sentence was 3 years. Kilgore, Lightsey, and Wilkerson have all served their time.
All totaled 62 years of prison time was handed out to PCA executives for the indictments that were unsealed 10 years ago in February. The convictions and sentences were all associated with a fatal multistate outbreak of human infections of Salmonella serotype Typhimurium. Confirmed cases occurred from Sept. 1, 2008, to March 21, 2009.
Lab work in Minnesota, Connecticut, Michigan, and Colorado, all helped the FDA connect the outbreak to PCA’s King Nut peanut butter made in Blakely, GA. Hundreds of other peanut butter brands and products containing peanut paste were recalled.
The PCA convictions and sentences were reviewed on appeal to the 11th Circuit of U.S. District Court in Atlanta and were upheld. But that wasn’t the end of appeal options
Since 2019, the Parnell brothers separately have been pursuing Habeous Corpus motions to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentences under what is known as Section 2255 proceedings.
Both are essentially claiming infective trial counsel. They won public hearings that required all their trial attorneys to testify, but Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff ruled against them.
Judge W. Louis Sands, the trial judge, has upheld Langstaff in the Stewart Parnell case. In the final days of 2022, Stewart Parnell appealed his HabeousCorpus case to the 11 Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Michael Parnell is still waiting on Judge Sands to issue an opinion in his case.
“In his § 2255 motion, Petitioner(Stewart Parnell) sets out two (2) grounds for relief, raising the following ineffective assistance of counsel claims pertaining to his retained trial representation:
1. Counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to seek a change of venue due to adverse pretrial publicity, jurors’ preconceived notions, and the amount of media exposure throughout the entire division of this Court.
2. Counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to move to strike-for-cause jurors with knowledge of the allegations of death caused by the salmonella outbreak.”
While they wait, 68-year-old Stewart Parnell remains incarcerated at the Hazelton federal prison in South Carolina with a release date that is 15 years out on July 7, 2038. Brother Michael, 64, is waiting for an Oct. 1, 2031, release fate at the federal lockup at Fort Dix, NJ.
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