Submitted by Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In what promises to be a sign of holding executives liable for their involvement in putting poisonous products into the food supply a Federal Jury convicted former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell of Conspiracy, Obstruction of Justice, Wire Fraud, and other crimes relating to a nationwide outbreak of salmonella that sickened over seven hundred individuals in forty three states and likely killed nine. Federal investigators in 2009 traced tainted peanut butter supplied by Parnell’s business to several producers who then packaged it into peanut butter containing foods according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The seven week trial, the culmination of a five year ordeal, has perhaps in measure brought closure and justice for those suffering damages from executives who knowingly and intentionally conspired to endanger so many.
In addition to Stewart Parnell, his Brother Michael Parnell–a food broker, was found guilty of also forging laboratory tests intended to screen for salmonella. The quality control manager for PCA, Mary Wilkerson, along with Stewart Parnell, were found guilty of Obstructing Justice for withholding information from federal investigators.
“Corporate officials are now on notice that they’ll be held to account for their conduct and claims of ignorance of arguments that ‘I was too busy’ or maybe that ‘I delegated the responsibility to someone else’ or even just finger-pointing in general will not be a shield from basic responsibility,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, whose office in Georgia’s Middle District prosecuted the case.
A copy of the original indictment may be downloaded HERE
During the trial, forty six witnesses were called and over one thousand pages of documents were entered into evidence. The jury did not hear testimony concerning the deaths of the nine victims. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore stated he did not wish to enter the issue of the deaths into the trial, electing instead to build what he believed to be a stronger and a more easily proven case by focusing on the fraudulent nature of the events alleged. “We wanted to make sure we kept the jury focused on the conduct that led to these people’s sickness, but not let the case get into the medical history of every victim out there with testimony on individual deaths,” Moore said.
The Arizona Republic reported that “[d]efense attorneys have acknowledged the Georgia plant shipped tainted peanut butter and covered up positive salmonella tests, but they say the scheme was carried out behind the backs of the Parnell brothers by two plant managers who pleaded guilty. Before the trial began, defense lawyers asked the judge to rule any evidence of sickness or death out-of-bounds. They argued it was irrelevant to the prosecutors’ fraud case and would unfairly “sway the passions of the jury” toward convictions.
Moore said his prosecutors also had doubts about whether death evidence would be admissible, or whether convictions in the case would be vulnerable to appeals if the trial judge allowed the jury to hear that people died. Prosecutors backed off before Judge W. Louis Sands ruled he would allow evidence that people got sick.”
One aspect that could have complicated the issues raised at trial was not only the deaths themselves, but the issue as to whether the jury would find that the cause of death was actually the food-poisoning or other pathologies. Those who suffered death were older and had other issues such as cancer and heart disease. At least one resided in a nursing home.
While it might be unsettling to some that the crimes resulting in convictions did not relate directly to the deaths over the tainted peanut butter. If the brothers Parnell receive the maximum penalty it could effectively be a life sentence. Stewart Parnell is sixty years of age. They also face millions in fines.
Hopefully the trial will raise awareness among food producers, but the public and regulators should always remain vigilant.
By Darren Smith
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