In 2014, were the judges and venue sufficiently free of prejudice to allow Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell to get a fair trial or not? Most recently, the academic scientist Denise de La Rue has one answer. She is a jury and litigation consultant from Decatur, GA.
The Parnell brothers are serving federal sentences related to a fatal outbreak attributable to their peanut butter and peanut paste products.
de La Rue has provided Federal Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff with a written report containing her opinion on Stewart Parnell’s allegations of ineffective legal counsel. The report is now part of the protocol of the “Habeas” petition to overturn Parnell’s sentence in whole or in part.
She prepared the expert opinion in support of Stewart Parnell’s petition, also known as the Motion 2255 case. A jury in 2014 convicted the Parnell brothers of several federal crimes. In a separate 2255 trial, Michael Parnell seeks to overturn his sentence.
Langstaff heard testimony in both cases on Motion 2255 in federal court in Albany, GA last month. The Parnell brothers, who wore striped prison clothes and chains, were allowed to attend their hearing while in the care of U.S. marshals.
de La Rue is a licensed attorney who acts exclusively as a jury and litigation advisor. She regularly lectures on jury selection and voir dire at law schools and legal education programs.
The Parnell brothers’ joint defense team did not seek a change of venue and decided not to hire a jury advisor, leaving the venue and jury selection process in the hands of current Judge Ken Hodges.
Hodges was an elected district attorney for Dougherty County in Albany, GA for 12 years. When he joined the defense team, he was practicing as an attorney in Atlanta. He recently won a statewide election to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Judge Hodges was responsible for selecting the jury and accepting Albany as the venue, members of the defense team have testified.
“In my opinion, Stewart Parnell’s trial attorney should have investigated the scope and implications of pre-trial publicity and the level of bias against him at the hearing with a view to requesting a change of jurisdiction,” de La Rue writes.
“There is no debate that events in his case made headlines at both local and national levels,” she continues. “In addition to the intensive reporting on these events, there were reports on preliminary proceedings and court proceedings. Perhaps even more widespread in many of the small towns and agriculturally rich counties in the Albany division was the word of mouth about the situation with the Peanut Corporation of America, the subsequent closure of the Blakely facility, the impact on the peanut industry in the community and the many Lives affected by it. All of these factors make this particular case one that I believe supports a possible change of venue. “
de La Rue, with supporting data, says Parnell’s defense required a request to change the venue. “I can think of no strategic reason why this work was not done in this case,” she continued.
In her comments on the jury selection, de La Rue begins by reviewing the 77-question, 14-page questionnaire that was used to select the Parnell jury. By the name “Skilling” she said the “exhaustive questionnaire”. was “one of the measures” to get a fair jury in a process surrounded by a lot of publicity.
On behalf of the Parnell jury, she said skilling was helpful, but with many unrelated open questions. de La Rue says prospective jury members reveal more in written questionnaires than speak in court or raise their hands.
Parnell’s defense, according to de La Rue, collapsed during the somber questioning, particularly among sequestered individuals. Parnell’s trial attorneys were ineffective “at important times”.
“They failed to investigate jurors to help them reveal any information (or misinformation) they might know about the defendants,” she said. They didn’t use open-ended questions regularly.
“The judges of primary interest are, of course, those who have served as petit judges,” she continues. Jurors # 34 and # 83 said they were aware of the case and were questioned individually by the court in the presence of other jurors. “The defense attorney asked jury number 34 no questions, and the follow-up of 83 was not concerned with investigating his knowledge of the case.”
“Remarkably, Petit Jurors # 37 and # 84 knew that there were fatalities in connection with the salmonella outbreak at the Blakely plant, a fact so detrimental that it was considered inadmissible in the trial. The attorney did not attempt to investigate a challenge for any of them.
“Rather than asking these two jurors the details of what they knew, the lawyers asked guiding questions that were more of a challenge to rehabilitation than exploration.”
In addition, the jury expert said that alternate jurors 111.112.115 and 116 “disclosed information and questioned individually by the court with no further challenge to pre-trial publicity or case awareness by Mr. Parnell’s attorney.”
Alternate jurors did not deliberate, but sat down with the jury.
de La Rue also says that knowledge of the deaths from the jury breakout # 37 and # 84 likely “infected the jury pool in a significant way if that information was disclosed to other jurors before or during deliberations”.
“People tend to attribute behaviors of others that are based in part on the results of that behavior,” said de La Rue. “Knowing that there have been deaths related to the events of this case, allegedly caused by Mr. Parnell, could certainly influence the jury’s verdict on Mr. Parnell’s conduct.”
“In my opinion,” she continues, “the only competent approach to these two jurors by Mr. Parnell’s attorney would be to conduct a thorough and thorough investigation of the matter in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a dispute; to challenge them on the fact that they were aware of inadmissible and adverse evidence, arguing that if disclosed and the challenge was denied on grounds that it could influence not only their own decisions but those of the rest of the jury as well, to ensure with compelling challenges that they do not sit on a jury in this case. “
The expert witness report was filed in court on June 8 by Amy Levin Weil of Atlanta and Amy Lee Copeland of Savannah, attorneys for Stewart Parnell in the Case 2255 proceedings. de La Rue received $ 10,000 as an advance on the report. Your billing rate is $ 375 per hour.
Parnell was CEO of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America, based in Lynchburg, VA, with peanut processing facilities in Blakely, GA and Plainview, TX. His brother Michael was a peanut broker at PCA.
In late 2008, a salmonella outbreak in several states was attributed to peanut butter and peanut paste products from the PCA Blakely plant. It would result in 714 confirmed salmonella cases in 46 states and Canada and nine deaths. In addition, peanut products have been recalled by more than 3,900 companies.
A federal investigation that lasted more than four years resulted in two criminal charges indicting the Parnell brothers and three other former PCA employees on several federal crimes. The Parnells first appeared in federal court in Albany, GA in February 2013.
A 2014 lawsuit convicted Parnells and PCA’s Blakely Quality Control Manager Mary Wilkerson. Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years federal prison, his brother Michael to 20 years and Wilkeson, who has since been released, served 5 years.
Two other former PCA executives agreed to plead guilty and testify on behalf of the government ahead of the trial. They served three and six years in prison and have been released since then.
Written arguments on the two habeas petitions should take the summer months to complete. Judge Langstaff will then make his recommendation.
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