Savannah, Georgia — A federal judge Thursday refused to throw out criminal convictions in a salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia peanut plant after the court investigated defense attorneys' claims of jury misconduct.
Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, his food broker brother, Michael Parnell, and the former quality assurance manager of the company's Georgia plant, Mary Wilkerson, were convicted in September on charges related to a salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that was blamed for 714 illnesses nationwide.
Court records unsealed Thursday show that months ago defense attorneys for all three defendants asked the judge to overturn the convictions after one juror came forward saying other jury members had researched the case outside the courtroom and discussed deaths that had been blamed on the outbreak. Deaths were not part of the trial evidence.
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Louis Sands revealed that he had called all jury members back to court and interviewed them in closed-door sessions with attorneys in October and November. Sands said only the juror who initially approached defense attorneys — whom he referred to only as Juror 34 — claimed there was any misconduct that might jeopardize the verdicts.
"Throughout the sealed proceedings held on alleged juror misconduct, the court only uncovered one juror who could be termed biased: Juror 34," Sands said in his ruling. He also concluded that, during the trial, "the evidence against the Defendants was overwhelming."
Ken Hodges, an attorney for Stewart Parnell, said his defense team planned to appeal the judge's ruling.
"I believe there was juror misconduct and I'm disappointed that the court found otherwise," Hodges said.
Ed Tolley, Michael Parnell's attorney, also said he was concerned about the jury deliberations and plans to appeal. Wilkerson's attorney, Tom Ledford, said he had no comment when reached by phone.
Jurors in Albany spent more than six weeks hearing the case. They found Stewart Parnell knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted peanut butter to customers and that he and his brother faked results of lab tests meant to screen for salmonella. Wilkerson was convicted of obstruction of justice.
The outbreak sickened people in 43 states by the time federal investigators traced it to Peanut Corporation'splant in Blakely in January 2009. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine people who ate the tainted peanut butter died, though it couldn't say for sure salmonella caused each death.
Experts said it was the first time U.S. food processors stood trial in a food-poisoning case. The judge has not set a sentencing date. Both Parnell brothers face lengthy prison sentences.