ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — Defense attorneys took barely an hour Wednesday to rest their cases after more than a month of prosecution testimony in the federal trial of three people charged in a deadly national salmonella outbreak five years ago that authorities traced to a rural Georgia peanut plant.
Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell has been on trial since Aug. 1 alongside his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson, who had been the quality assurance manager at the company's plant in southwest Georgia. After five weeks of cross-examining witnesses called to testify in U.S. District Court by prosecutors, attorneys for all three defendants opted to bring the case to a speedy end.
Lawyers for Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson chose to present no defense case at all. Michael Parnell's attorney, Edward Tolley, called just two witnesses after a brief opening statement in which he told jurors his client was a customer who bought tainted food from his brother's plant, not a conspirator who plotted to sell it to others.
"Michael Parnell was never a director of Peanut Corporation of America and he had no ownership interest," Tolley said. "He never received a paycheck from PCA."
Experts say it's the first time corporate executives and workers have gone to trial in a food poisoning case; prior prosecutions have ended in plea deals without prison time. However, the defendants in Georgia aren't charged with any deaths or illnesses.
The Parnell brothers are essentially charged with defrauding customers by shipping contaminated peanuts and peanut butter used in crackers and other snacks while covering up positive tests for salmonella. In 2009, investigators linked Peanut Corporation's plant in Blakely, Georgia, to an outbreak that prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 714 people in 46 states were infected with salmonella and nine people died — three in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.
Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson are also charged with obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say they withheld information from investigators. Conspiracy and obstruction charges brought against the defendants in a 76-count indictment last year each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. The plant was shut down following the outbreak and Peanut Corporation went bankrupt.
Jurors were scheduled to hear closing arguments in the case Thursday.
Michael Parnell didn't work for Peanut Corporation, but rather had his own business as a middleman who bought peanut paste produced at the Georgia plant for Kellogg's. Tolley said his client was essentially a customer of his brother's company who had little input on the production side.
Prosecutors have said the opposite, that Michael Parnell stayed closely involved with production of peanut paste for Kellogg's and took part in email exchanges regarding how the company faked documents given to customers showing results of lab tests for salmonella and other contaminants.
Michael Parnell's wife, Jean Parnell, testified Wednesday that her husband went into business for himself in 2006 after getting laid off by another peanut company. She said they took out a second mortgage on their Virginia home to finance two tanker trucks for hauling peanut paste that cost about $200,000.
After the salmonella outbreak, she said, the tanker trucks were "sold for scrap" and she and her husband lost their home.