Stewart Parnell, 66, and Michael Parnell, 62, are set to appear in court during the week of May 24 with their Habeas Corpus Petitions in hand. The nation’s most notorious food safety violators want their freedom from federal prisons. They’ve been in custody since 2015.
Veteran federal Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff will conduct evidentiary hearings on both petitions at 9 a.m. May 24, for Stewart and at 9 a.m. May 27, for Michael. The proceedings will be at the federal courthouse in Albany, GA.
The logistic details came together this week when Charlottesville, VA, attorney Elliot M. Harding requested that Michael’s hearing be scheduled immediately after Steward’s.
Harding became Michael Parnell’s defense attorney about a year ago, ending a period when Parnell was representing himself (Pro Se). Harding told the court the underlying issues of the two petitions are “effectively the exact same.”
He said the parties have conferred and the defense and government attorneys agreed that scheduling during that week in May would be prudent. “All parties recognize the likelihood that many of the same witnesses will be called in both ‘2255’ proceedings, with attorneys for the parties and some witnesses living hundreds of miles and multiple states away from this court,” Harding’s schedule motion said.
Harding also said the schedule limits travel and thereby reduces the likelihood of the need for quarantines or other “disruptive, precautionary measures.”
A Habeas Corpus petition is not a “direct appeal” of a conviction, nor can it be filed until any “direct appeal” is exhausted. The Parnell brothers did appeal their jury convictions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta and lost.
The appellate court upheld the convictions and sentences imposed by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.
The Habeas Corpus petition is a claim that imprisonment is illegal because something about an arrest, trial, or sentence violates federal law or the Constitution.
For both of the Parnell hearings, Judge Langstaff has ordered the parties to exchange witness and exhibit lists no later than 21 days prior to the start of the hearings. Stewart Parnell’s defense attorneys, Amy Levin Weil of Atlanta and Amy Lee Copeland of Savannah previously objected to the exchange.
Weil and Copeland are both former assistant U.S. attorneys with appellate experience. In the evidentiary hearing, they are expected to argue that their client denied effective counsel in the 2014 jury trial.
They claim Stewart Parnell’s trial counsel “rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance” by failing to seek a change of venture and thereby preventing trial by a “fair and impartial jury.” They say the jury that was selected was adversely impacted by adverse and extensive pretrial publicity
The Parnell brothers were convicted by a jury trial in 2014 and sentenced a year later to prison terms, respectively, of 28 and 20 years Stewart is held at the federal correctional facility in Hazelton, WV. Michael is at the federal correctional institution at Fort Dix, NJ.
The Parnell brothers were convicted in relation to a 2013 indictment on 76 federal felony counts. The government filed the indictment after a federal investigation of a 2008 nationwide salmonella outbreak that was traced to the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) plant at Blakely, GA.
Stewart Parnell was a PCA owner and chief executive officer, and Michael Parnell was a peanut broker for PCA. They faced charges that attorneys said were “by far the most severe ever imposed in a food safety case.”
Thousands were sickened because PCA peanut butter and peanut paste were contaminated in 2008. There were nine deaths associated with the outbreak.
Before the trial, attorneys for the Parnells argued evidence about the illnesses and especially the deaths would be “unfairly prejudicial.” The defendants were charged with causing deaths.
The government ultimately agreed that it would not put on evidence that people died from the “salmonella that emanated from the PCA plant.” It did put on evidence that the outbreak did result in human illnesses.
After the trial, however, defense attorneys learned that at least some of the jurors had knowledge of the deaths and there was a controversy about whether the alleged jury misconduct was enough to require a new trial.
Judge W. Louis Sands conducted an in-chambers review and determined any jury misconduct was not sufficient to require a new trial and the trial judge’s findings were ultimately upheld on appeal. The inquiry delayed sentencing for almost a year.
And that cleared the way for the Parnell brothers to be sentenced in 2015 for their convictions on multiple federal felony counts.
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