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Salmonella-tainted peanuts case in jurors' hands; deciding if plant owner criminally to blame

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ALBANY, Georgia — Jurors started deciding Friday whether the owner of a Georgia peanut plant linked to a deadly salmonella outbreak recklessly sent known tainted products with the motto "just ship it" or was simply a scapegoat for large food companies that authorities didn't want to prosecute and subordinate managers who weren't prominent enough to shoulder the blame.

Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell has been on trial since Aug. 1, accused of shipping tainted peanuts and peanut butter to customers and covering up positive lab tests for salmonella. Federal investigators in January 2009 identified Parnell's peanut plant in rural Georgia as the source of salmonella poisoning blamed for the deaths of nine Americans and in the sicknesses of 714 more. Experts say it's the first time a U.S. food producer has been tried in U.S. District Court in a food poisoning case.

Jurors had barely begun deliberations when they adjourned without a verdict Friday afternoon. Judge W. Louis Sands said they won't resume until Thursday because scheduling conflicts will require court to be in recess early next week.

Prosecutor Patrick Hearn on Friday asked jurors to convict, saying Peanut Corporation endangered consumers by cutting corners "to squeeze more profits."

"This is about people wanting to know that when they eat food, it's safe," Hearn said.

In Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Dasher's closing Thursday, he said it "was Stewart Parnell's and his company's mission statement to 'just ship it' — ship the product regardless of whether you know it's safe or not, or if you know it's not safe....Whatever the cost, whatever the risk, whatever the fraud or the lies involved, just ship it."

Tom Bondurant, Parnell's lead attorney, countered in his closing argument that while it's true that the plant shipped food contaminated with salmonella and sent customers fake lab reports declaring its products safe, those schemes were carried out by two plant managers — Sammy Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore. They pleaded guilty in the case and testified against their old boss. Following the outbreak, authorities faced pressure to prosecute someone more prominent than the plant's managers, but they didn't want to accuse the larger companies that used Peanut Corporation's products in their own foods.

"Someone had to be held responsible," Bondurant said. "And Stewart Parnell seemed to be the perfect person rather than going after a multibillion corporation."

Three hours of closing arguments by defense lawyers for Parnell and two co-defendants — his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, and the plant's former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson — formed the heart of their appeal to jurors. Only two defense witnesses testified in a single hour during the trial, after prosecutors spent more than five weeks calling nearly 50 witnesses and introducing an estimated 1,000 documents.

The indictment charged the Parnells with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Wilkerson is charged with obstruction of justice. The three defendants are charged with a total of 71 counts carrying prison sentences of up to 20 years apiece.

Stewart Parnell oversaw Peanut Corporation's three peanut plants from his home in Lynchburg, Virginia. But prosecutors say he closely monitored daily operations. They repeatedly cited a March 2007 email Parnell wrote after a shipment was delayed awaiting lab results for salmonella. Parnell wrote: "(Expletive), just ship it."

Bondurant insisted Stewart Parnell never would have knowingly shipped food that was unsafe.

"It would ruin the family business and, more so, he ate the stuff," Bondurant said. "He took it home to his family."

The Georgia plant was shut down in 2009 and Peanut Corporation went bankrupt. The Parnell brothers were not charged with killing people or making them sick, but instead are accused of defrauding their customers. Prosecutors agreed not to mention the deaths during the trial after defense attorneys argued that would inflame the jury.

Edward Tolley, Michael Parnell's lawyer, told jurors his client didn't work for Peanut Corporation but was a middle man who bought the company's peanut paste for Kellogg's to use in peanut butter crackers and other snacks. Tolley blamed Kellogg's, which bought 40,000 pounds of the Georgia plant's peanut paste twice a week, for not performing its own salmonella tests, saying the company's own lab tested each load for consistency and taste.

"They didn't do it because of money," Tolley said. "They wanted to make this process work on the back of the little guy."

Prosecutors say she lied to investigators asking about positive salmonella tests and concealed a log book containing evidence lab reports were faked. Her attorney, Tom Ledford, said there was no recording of Wilkerson's interview with investigators, just "chicken scratch" notes. And he noted Wilkerson's boss, Lightsey, pleaded guilty to hiding the log.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the salmonella outbreak sickened Americans in 46 states. Three people died in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.

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