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Criminal convictions and lengthy prison sentences for two peanut industry executives stemming from a widespread salmonella outbreak that led to nine deaths will stand, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled Jan. 23.
The outbreak in 2008 and 2009, which sickened at least 714 people in 46 states, helped spur the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a federal law designed to prevent, rather than respond to, foodborne illness outbreaks.
The three-judge panel rejected claims by Stewart and Michael Parnell, executives of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), that jurors had impermissibly researched the outbreak, and therefore were exposed to information other than that presented in court.
The appeals court in its unpublished opinion deferred to the district judge, who conducted two hearings on the extrinsic evidence claims, and also noted “overwhelming” evidence of guilt in the case negating the notion that any improper evidence influenced the jury’s verdicts.
Prosecutors charged that PCA knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted peanuts, and that the Parnells defrauded customers by covering up the presence of salmonella and fabricating documents accompanying peanut shipments that said the product was free of pathogens.
The sentences in the cases, which include three years of supervised release, are the largest ever imposed in a food safety case.
Stewart was sentenced to 336 months in prison, while Michael was sentenced to 240 months.
The court rejected Michael’s claim that his sentence was excessive.
The conviction of another PCA employee, Mary Wilkerson, also was upheld.
Judges Gerald B. Tjoflat, Beverly B. Martin, and R. Lanier Anderson III participated in the decision.
Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore represented Stewart Parnell.
Williams Mullen, as well as Cook Noell Tolley & Bates represented Michael Parnell.
The Ledford Law Firm represented Wilkerson.
The case is United States v. Parnell , 11th Cir., No. 15-14400, unpublished 1/23/18 .
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