The U.S. Probation Office has recommended that the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, Stewart Parnell, be sentenced to life in prison for allowing several shipments of peanuts from facilities infected with salmonella. The peanuts led to the deadliest food outbreak in U.S. history from 2008-2009, causing nine deaths and over 700 illnesses linked to the company’s Blakely, Georgia processing plant. The Office, which is a branch of the federal court system, made the recommendation in a brief filed Wednesday in U.S. Federal Court in Albany, Georgia. The disclosure comes ahead of Parnell’s September 21st sentencing hearing. Parnell, along with his brother, peanut broker Michael Parnell, and quality manager Mary Wilkerson were found guilty on 71 counts last September. The counts include conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and “introduction of adulterated food.” Michael Parnell was found guilty on all but one count, and Wilkerson was found guilty on one count of obstruction of justice. The Office also recommended that Michael Parnell serve 17-21 years in prison, and Mary Wilkerson to serve 8-10 years.
Last year’s convictions came after a four-year FBI investigation, culminating in a total of 76 counts on its 2013 indictment. The case made it to a jury trial in July, 2014, with prosecutors presenting email evidence that Parnell instructed the company to conceal information about a potential salmonella outbreak. They also asserted that Parnell fabricated lab results, presenting one internal email in which Parnell was awaiting lab test results, yet wrote “S—, just ship it, I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer.” Food safety lawyer William Marler, who helped represent the victims, called the recommendation “unprecedented,” but also pointed out that each charge could carry a one to ten year sentence. If the judge were to adopt the recommendation, it would be the toughest sentence in U.S. history for food safety violations.
One of Parnell’s attorneys, Ken Hodges called the sentencing recommendation “truly absurd,” asserting that his client did not intend to harm anybody. Hodges told USA Today, “The truth of the matter is Stewart Parnell ate that peanut butter; he fed it to his children and fed it to his grandchildren. He never intended to harm anyone.” Hodges and the defendants were denied a motion for acquittal on May 28th, and made a failed attempt to sway the judge in an evidentiary hearing earlier this month. U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case called it “a misplaced attempt to call into question the jury’s verdict.” Lead defense attorney, Tom Bondurant, says that the defense disputes the judge’s calculations, citing speculative financial losses from customers and the lack of concrete medical evidence linking all of the illnesses to the peanuts.
Food Safety News – Dan Flynn
USA Today – Melanie Eversley
Wall Street Journal – Jesse Newman