The former CEO of the company whose tainted, Georgia-made peanut butter was linked to nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses was sentenced Monday to spend most, if not all, of the rest of his life in prison.
The 28-year sentence for Stewart Parnell, 61, is the stiffest ever in a food safety case, prosecutors said. Parnell was found guilty of more than five dozen felony counts for his role in the 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak, after a jury concluded he knowingly directed the shipment of dangerous product from his Virginia-based company’s plant in Blakely, Ga.
Parnell’s brother Michael, 56, also an executive at the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America, received a 20-year prison term at Monday’s sentencing hearing. A third PCA manager, Mary Wilkerson, was sentenced to five years in prison and two on probation.
U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands denied the Parnell brothers’ motions to remain free on bond pending appeals and ordered them into custody. Wilkerson will be allowed to turn herself in at a future date because Sands did not consider her a risk to flee.
Sands said the defendants broke the trust society places in food company executives to assure consumers are safe.
“These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits notwithstanding the known risks,” Sands said. “This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed.”
Still, Stewart Parnell’s sentence fell far short of the estimated 803 years he could have gotten with maximums on each count. Sands told the courtroom, “this is not a murder case.”
Before Sands handed down the sentences, Stewart Parnell gave a statement in which he said he was “personally embarrassed, humiliated and morally disgraced by what happened.”
“This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family,” Parnell said. “I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened.”
“I think about you guys every day,” he told relatives of victims, several of whom had given emotional statements earlier.
Prosecutor Alan Dash said Parnell’s words — his first real public comment on the case — were too little, too late.
He noted that Parnell’s lawyers had tried to block victims’ relatives from speaking during the sentencing hearing.
“That’s not remorse,” Dash said.
The hearing moved rapidly through testimony from about 10 relatives of people who died or were sickened after eating products with peanut butter from the Blakely plant. The peanut butter was used in a wide array of products, prompting a far-reaching recall when the problem was detected.
“I will hold my breath no longer, just ship them to jail,” said Jeff Almer, whose mother Shirley died. His wording was an apparent reference to an e-mail in which Stewart Parnell wrote of a batch whose testing had been delayed, “Just ship it. I can’t afford to (lose) another customer.”
Almer, looking directly at Parnell as he spoke, said his mother was already battling cancer when she fell ill from bad peanut butter, adding, “You kicked her right off the cliff.”
Parnell appeared somber throughout the sentencing hearing but displayed little emotion.
There were also character witnesses for the defendants, including the Parnell brothers’ mother, Zelda Parnell, 82.
She implored Sands to be lenient, saying she has “suffered for seven years already” as she watched her sons defend themselves from the charges.
“I’m also sorry for the people here,” she said, turning to victims’ relatives. “Bad things happen to good people.”
Parnell’s daughter, Grey Adams, said the family is “profoundly sorry” for the outbreak.
Darin Detwiler, an adjunct professor of food at Northeastern University and a leader in the advocacy group Stop Foodborne Illness, lost his 16-month-old son Riley in the E.coli outbreak of 1993 at the Jack in the Box burger chain.
He traveled to Albany to attend the sentencing and said afterward: “I hope this sends a clear message to the food industry, consumers and those who were victims in past contamination that there will be justice.”