Peanut executive receives longest sentence in food safety case - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Peanut executive receives longest sentence in food safety case

Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia speaks after the sentencing. (Source: WALB) Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia speaks after the sentencing. (Source: WALB)
FILE - This Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009 file photo, shows the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor) FILE - This Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009 file photo, shows the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor)
Albany Federal Courthouse (Source: WALB) Albany Federal Courthouse (Source: WALB)
Stewart Parnell (Source: WALB) Stewart Parnell (Source: WALB)
ALBANY, GA (WALB) -

A federal judge sentenced the convicted CEO, his food broker brother, and quality assurance manager of a bankrupt peanut company to prison after the trial at the center of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.

Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison. He was also sentenced to serve three years of probation after the prison term. His sentence is the longest criminal sentence in a food safety case.

His food broker brother Michael Parnell was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Wilkerson was sentenced to 5 years.

The two Parnell brothers were taken into custody after the sentencing and not allowed bond, as they were considered a flight risk. Plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson, however, was allowed bond.

The family of Shirley Almer spoke after the Judge Louis Sands delivered the sentence.

"Today was a victory," said Almer's son Jeff. "It was justice for her and other families who needlessly suffered."

"I take no joy in seeing those people go to jail," said Almer's daughter Ginger Lorentz. "I only see the sorrow in the families that they leave behind."

Judge Sands said the salmonella trial came down to money, and that Stewart Parnell put profits before his customer's safety.

"We were counting nine precious lives that were lost. The reality of the facts in this care are harsh. And they call out for a harsh penalty," said U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Michael Moore.

"This has been a several year nightmare. Now I stand before you and ask for forgiveness from you and the victims," Stewart Parnell told the court Monday before the sentence. "To the victims, I apologize tremendously."

He, his brother Michael, and Wilkerson were convicted in September 2014 for their roles in the outbreak linked to a peanut plant in Blakely, Georgia.

Stewart Parnell was convicted on 72 counts of fraud, conspiracy and other federal charges for knowingly shipping tainted peanut products that led to a salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009.

Wilkerson was convicted of obstruction of justice. She declined to speak during the sentencing.

Michael Parnell was convicted of conspiracy and dozens of counts of fraud, according to a federal indictment.

Character witnesses for Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, testified on his behalf before the judge handed the sentence down.

His mother, daughter, and son-in-law spoke about his caring and generous spirit in the courtroom.

Parnell's son-in-law who testified that the former CEO wanted to tell the truth for more than six years, but could not because of lawyers. He also said that Stewart Parnell had not slept for six years because of remorse.

During the trial, however, victims who spoke said they were hurt by his lack of remorse.

Ron Napier talked about his 80-year-old mother Nellie from Ohio, who died on January 26, 2009.

Prosecutors said she was the ninth victim to die from the salmonella outbreak.

Ron said he wanted to come and face Stewart and Michael Parnell, to make sure they heard about his mother's painful death.

A total of eight people representing the victims and family members spoke in court about how the salmonella outbreak affected them.

Stewart Parnell's attorney, Tom Bondurant, said they would appeal the conviction and sentence, and said it was a "life sentence."

"Stewart didn't have the intent to hurt anyone. He didn't have evil intent. He was a lousy manager,"  Bondurant said.

More than 700 people were sickened in the outbreak and nine people died, according to the CDC, though it was not certain that each death was due to salmonella poisoning.

The outbreak prompted the largest food recall in U.S. history and cost customers of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) $144 million.

"From a food safety perspective this case has helped change the way the industry does business," said Moore. "It is also an indicator the president's commitment to make sure that the food we feed our families is safe."

The families of the victims also said they hoped no other families ever go through the pain they did in losing loved ones.

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