stewart-parnell-hearing.0Sentencing is September 21 – See, Sentencing Brief.

AP’s Russ Bynum reports that Federal court officers are recommending what attorneys are calling an “unprecedented” sentence of life in prison for a peanut executive convicted in a salmonella-poisoning case. Former Peanut Corporation of American owner Stewart Parnell was convicted last fall of selling truckloads of peanut butter from his southwest Georgia plant to food processors even after they tested positive for Salmonella.  Food containing the tainted peanuts was blamed for killing nine people and sickened more than 700.  The U.S. Probation Office prepared the recommendation for Parnell’s upcoming sentencing. It was revealed in a court filing by prosecutors Wednesday.

As I said to the AP:

Bill Marler is a lawyer for victims sickened by peanut butter from Parnell’s plant. He called the recommended sentence “unprecedented.”

In fact, Marler and other experts say the trial of Parnell and two co-defendants last year was the first federal food-poisoning case to be tried by an American court. A jury convicted Parnell of 71 counts including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes related to a salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009. The Centers for Disease Control linked the outbreak to nine deaths and 714 illnesses. It prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

“Life in prison, especially in a food case, it’s frankly unprecedented,” said Marler, who has represented victims of food-borne illnesses for two decades. “But the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented.”

Marler said he suspects the judge and prosecutors will think carefully before deciding to pursue a life sentence for Parnell. Still, he said, even the possibility of such a stiff sentence sends a message to food companies.

“The same shock or sobering impact that you and I have talking about it, you multiply that by 100 for some food executive sitting in an office,” Marler said.

As Stewart’s lawyer said:

Parnell attorney Ken Hodges went further, calling it, “truly absurd.”

Well, it’s certainly not “truly absurd.”

After a 35-day trial, a federal jury on September 19, 2014, found Stewart Parnell, former owner and chief executive of Peanut Corporation of America, guilty of 71 counts of conspiracy, interstate shipments fraud, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, and introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead.

His brother, peanut broker, Michael Parnell, was convicted on 29 counts of a smaller but similar list of multiple convictions. Mary Wilkerson, the former quality manager at PCA’s peanut processing plant was convicted on one of two charges of obstruction of justice.

Two other PCA employees, former plant manager Samuel Lightsey and former operations manager Daniel Kilgore, were also charged but pleaded guilty before trial under agreements that saw them become government witnesses. They are be sentenced on October 1.

As I said to the Wall Street Journal:

“It was an extraordinary verdict that could result in an extraordinary amount of time in jail for a food crime,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food-borne illnesses, including some in the Peanut Corp. case.

And, to USA Today:

William Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer representing the victims, called the recommendation “unprecedented” but not necessarily a surprise, given the 71 felony counts with a standard punishment range of one to 10 years per count.

Marler said he spoke with several of the family members of those who died in the Parnell case. “A lot of them are quite relieved,” Marler told USA TODAY. “These are people whose family members died from eating peanut butter, so you can understand where they may not have much sympathy for Mr. Parnell.”

Marler also noted that President Obama’s administration has been aggressive in food safety prosecutions, and he pointed out as examples the May announcement that ConAgra Foods agreed to pay more than $11 million in fines related to a salmonella outbreak, and the April sentencing of Iowa egg producer Jack DeCoster and his son for selling tainted eggs.