In 2009 the Peanut Corporation of America peanut plant was found to be the source of a Salmonella outbreak blamed for the deaths of nine Americans and the sicknesses of 714 more – many of them my clients.
Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, and the plant’s former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson have been on trial since August 1. They are accused of shipping tainted peanuts and peanut butter to customers and covering up positive lab tests for Salmonella. Two other employees were charged and pled guilty. They both testified against the Parnells and Wilkerson.
The felony indictment charged the Parnells with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Wilkerson was charged with obstruction of justice. The three defendants were charged with a total of 71 counts carrying prison sentences of up to 20 years apiece.
This is a trial that is being watched by food producers the world over. It is one thing to sicken and kill your customers and face civil liability and bankruptcy; it is quite another thing to face jail time.
It is now in the hands of the jury.
As someone who has tried cases, there is an indescribable feeling of both relief and dread when the judge gives the jury their charge (jury instructions), the closing arguments are all made and the exhibits go back into the jury room.
And, now you wait, and guess the outcome and second-guess yourself.
Honestly, I have no idea what this jury in Judge Sands Court will do. That would be true if I had been one of the lawyers in the courtroom in Albany or thousands of miles away here in Seattle. Once those jurors head back to that room, what little control the lawyers ever had is lost. The jurors are now on their own – equipped with a mixture of intelligence, prejudice and common sense, and, in my experience, a commitment to try and do the right thing.
Will I personally be disappointed if the jury does not convict? Perhaps I will be. I know many of the victims, watched Stewart Parnell take the Fifth before congress and have advocated for his prosecution since 2009.
That being said, if the jurors find the defendants not guilty, I would still be thankful that the U.S. Attorneys, the FDA, OCI, CDC, and state and local health departments worked together to bring the charges that have sent a clear message – “It is a bad idea to poison your customers.”
This trial, along with the misdemeanor charges against the Jensen brothers in the 2011 Listeria Cantaloupe outbreak and against the elder and younger DeCosters in the 2010 Salmonella Egg outbreak, have been part of a more aggressive move on the part of prosecutors in recent years. Yes, it has created fear on the production line and in the boardroom, and, regardless what the jurors in Albany do, this extra attention to food safety is a very, very good thing.