A year after a federal jury convicted him of crimes behind a salmonella outbreak blamed for killing nine people and sickening hundreds more, former peanut executive Stewart Parnell returns to court facing possible imprisonment for the rest of his life.
A sentencing hearing was scheduled for Monday in Albany, Georgia, for the 61-year-old former owner of Peanut Corporation of America. Due in U.S. District Court with Parnell were two co-defendants — his brother and a plant manager — also found guilty in what experts called the first food-poisoning trial of American food processors.
Parnell was convicted Sept. 19, 2014, of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter from his plant in Blakely, Georgia, to Kellogg's and other customers who used it in products from packaged crackers to pet food. The jury also found Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, guilty of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.
The brothers were charged after a salmonella outbreak that sickened 714 Americans in 46 states was traced to Peanut Corporation's plant in Blakely, Georgia, in early 2009. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine people who ate tainted peanut butter died during the outbreak in 2008 and 2009, though it couldn't say for sure salmonella caused each death.
Federal investigators found a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents, all ingredients for brewing salmonella. They also uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway. Other batches were never tested at all, but got shipped with fake lab records saying salmonella screenings were negative.
In a court order Friday, Judge W. Louis Sands noted Stewart Parnell faces a possible prison sentence of 9,636 months — which comes to 803 years. The U.S. Probation Office, which prepares pre-sentencing reports to help guide federal judges, recommended the stiff sentence based on the number of illnesses as well as estimates that the outbreak, which triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, cost Parnell's corporate customers $144 million.
The judge has the authority to impose a lighter sentence. Randy Napier, whose 80-year-old mother in Ohio died from salmonella poisoning after she ate contaminated peanut butter from Parnell's plant, said he plans to testify at the hearing and ask the judge to show little mercy.
"We need to send a message to these food manufacturers," said Napier of Durham, North Carolina. "No one else should have to go through what we did, watching my mother die. I'm hoping to have closure. It's been six years of utter hell."
Attorneys in the case say voluminous testimony from victims seeking stiff sentences and defendants' relatives asking for leniency could push the sentencing proceedings into a second day Tuesday.
Parnell's attorneys insist locking him up for life would be too harsh. Even food-safety attorney Bill Marler, who represented many families of victims in the salmonella outbreak, has said life imprisonment would be "unprecedented."
Whatever punishment he receives, Parnell appears to be preparing for a long stay in prison. In April, Parnell and his wife put the Lynchburg, Virginia, home they have owned since 1983 on the market for $699,000.
"Stewart has been punished — he's lost everything he's ever built, he's unemployable and he can't provide for his family," said Ken Hodges, one of Parnell's defense attorneys. "I am sorry that people got sick from his peanut butter and died from his peanut butter. And he is too. He's felt regret for a long time."
Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts than his brother, faces a recommended punishment of 19 to 24 years in prison. Co-defendant Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant's quality control manager, faces five years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.
Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.