By Christopher Zoukis
In Georgia, a state where the death penalty is regularly imposed in cases involving multiple deaths resulting from criminal conduct, executives of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) received relatively light federal prison sentences for their roles in corporate criminal malfeasance that resulted in the deaths of nine people. The case underscores the tilt in justice’s scales where wealthy defendants employed by powerful corporations are concerned.
In a 2009 probe, peanut products traced back to a Blakely, Georgia processing plant owned by PCA were identified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as being responsible for a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened more than 700 others in 2008 and 2009. FDA investigators reported that the outbreak was likely caused by mice droppings in the plant, which was cited for unsanitary conditions.
Georgia prosecutors declined to prosecute PCA executives, instead leaving it to federal authorities to bring charges.
As a result of an ensuing criminal investigation, federal prosecutors asserted that PCA executives falsely certified that the company’s products had been tested for pathogens and were found to be safe. Further allegations included charges that PCA executives knew the peanut products, including peanut butter, had been tainted by salmonella but shipped them anyway.
Mary Wilkerson, who had served as the quality control officer at the Blakely plant, was found guilty of obstruction of justice and sentenced in September 2015 to five years in prison. She was accused of acknowledging in company emails that bacteria found in test samples likely came from mice.
While Wilkerson could have been sentenced to up to ten years for her role in the salmonella outbreak that caused the nine deaths, she remained defiant in an effort to avoid prison time, arguing that, notwithstanding strong evidence that the contamination came from the Blakely plant, the outbreak “could have been” caused by an outbreak at a ConAgra plant the year before. That contention was rejected.
Stewart Parnell, PCA’s former owner and CEO, was convicted of dozens of counts of fraud, conspiracy and related charges. At his September 21, 2015 sentencing hearing, Parnell, who faced a maximum sentence of 803 years before U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands, vigorously protested being held accountable for the deaths attributed to PCA’s misconduct.
Before handing down the sentence, Judge Sands, despite the nine dead victims of salmonella poisoning, reminded those assembled in the courtroom that “this is not a murder case.” Parnell received a 28-year sentence on 67 counts, including obstruction, conspiracy and introduction of adulterated food.
His attorney, Justin Lugar, said he was “disappointed” with the sentence. “We knew there was a high likelihood of an effective life sentence, but we believe it’s an excessive sentence,” Lugar said in a statement to the press.
Stewart Parnell’s brother, Michael Parnell, a peanut broker who facilitated deals between PCA and distributors and manufacturers like Kellogg, received a 20-year prison sentence on 31 counts. The Parnells and Wilkerson were convicted following a jury trial.
Both Stewart and Michael Parnell were ordered into custody at the time of sentencing, as they were deemed flight risks. Stewart was confined at a federal prison in South Carolina, while Michael was sent to a penitentiary in Michigan.
In late November 2016, both Parnells and Wilkerson filed opening briefs in appeals of their convictions; one of their attorneys, Joseph R. Pope, argued that the jury should not have been informed about the nine deaths caused by the salmonella outbreak. The appeals remain pending before the Eleventh Circuit.
While the federal prison sentences imposed on Stewart and Michael Parnell are not insignificant, compare them to the death or life sentences that most non-corporate defendants would receive had they been responsible for killing nine people, even indirectly.
Sources: www.law360.com, www.usatoday.com, www.foodsafetynews.com
This article original appeared in Prison Legal News on March 9, 2017.