Could Stewart Parnell Be Set Free?
Stewart Parnell has been ordered to return to the C.B. King Federal Courthouse in Albany, GA, on February 24, 2021, for a hearing that could lead to freedom for the former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executive.
Parnell was sentenced in 2015 to a 28-year prison term, which he is currently serving at a federal prison in South Carolina. The hearing will involve oral arguments on a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence on grounds he was denied, effective counsel.
Gentry Locke LLP attorney Thomas J. Bondurant Jr. from Roanoke, VA, represented Parnell at trial and will likely be subpoenaed to testify at the hearing. In September 2019, he supported Parnell’s motion to vacate the conviction and sentence with a declaration, telling about a prospective juror who said he wanted to “extract my pound of flesh” from Parnell.
Parnell’s appellate attorneys have been seeking an evidentiary hearing since September 2019. They plan to show how Georgia’s peanut-growing counties turned hostile toward Parnell after PCA poisoned its customers and tainted the industry’s reputation. They are going to argue that Parnell’s trial attorneys should have sought a change of venue, given this hostility toward their client.
Parnell was indicted on February 15, 2013, nearly 4 years after a Salmonella outbreak caused by peanut butter paste produced by PCA poisoned thousands around the country and resulted in at least seven deaths. Parnell and four other PCA executives or managers were charged with conspiracy; introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead; introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead; mail fraud; wire fraud; and obstruction of justice.
Following a 34-day jury trial in August and September 2014, Parnell was found guilty of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud; conspiracy to introduce adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce; multiple counts of introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce; multiple counts of Introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce; multiple counts of mail fraud; multiple counts of wire fraud; and two counts of obstruction of justice.
Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison, which began when he entered on September 21, 2015. It is to be followed by three years of supervised release.
To obtain relief from a conviction based on constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show both that counsel’s performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defendant. To prove ineffective assistance of counsel based upon a failure to move for a change of venue, a petitioner must show, at a minimum, that there is a reasonable probability that the trial court would have, or at least should have, granted a motion for change of venue if counsel had presented such a motion to the court.
If Parnell were to prevail, the court would be mandated to vacate and set the judgment aside and discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate.
Meanwhile, Stewart’s brother Michael, who was also convicted of multiple felony counts and sentenced to 20 years, is making similar arguments.