Savannah attorney Amy Lee Copeland has filed a Notice of Appeal for Stewart Parnell’s motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence under a federal habeas corpus action.
Parnell’s Motion was denied Sept. 23 by the trial judge, W. Louis Sands, who upheld the also negative findings of Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff, who heard public testimony from Parnell’s trial attorneys in May 2021.
Sands and Langstaff are both assigned to the District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. Copeland has appealed Sands’s denial of Parnell’s motion to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit which is based in Atlanta.
Parnell is the 68-year-old former peanut industry executive who 13- years ago was caught shipping peanut butter and paste that he knew were contaminated, which in turn were determined to be the source of a deadly multiple-state Salmonella outbreak.
For the past three years, Parnell has sought to overturn his conviction and sentence with a federal habeas corpus appeal. In this appeal, he has argued his imprisonment is unlawful because he was denied effective counsel at the time of his trial in 2014.
Parnell is currently serving time at the federal lockup at Hazelton, WV, which inmates call “Misery Mountain.”
Parnell, once president of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America, was indicted in 2013 for numerous federal felonies. All charges involved the 2008-09 multistate Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that sickened thousands in at least 46 states and may have contributed to nine deaths in Idaho (1), Minnesota (3), North Carolina (1), Ohio (2), and Virginia (2).
After a 34-day trial in 2014, a Middle District federal jury found Parnell guilty of all but one count of wire fraud. For the many guilty counts, including fraud and conspiracy and introducing adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud among numerous other felonies, Parnell was sentenced in 2015 to 28 years in federal prison to be followed by three years of supervised release.
The same outbreak was largely responsible for Congress in late 2010 passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed on Jan. 4, 2011.
Parnell did appeal his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, but the trial court’s findings were upheld. That left Parnell with only the habeas corpus action left to pursue.
Parnell filed the 2255 Motion on Sept. 6, 2019, alleging 1) infective assistance of his trial counsel because counsel failed to move to change the venue and failed to strike a juror for cause and 2) these two errors constituted structural error.
Parnell also asked for an evidentiary hearing, which the Magistrate judge permitted and conducted during two days in May 2021. Parnell was taken to that hearing in federal custody by U.S. Marshals.
Defense attorneys from the historic 2014 jury trial offered testimony during the evidentiary hearing, but Magistrate Langstaff didn’t hear anything that caused him to think that Parnell’s legal counsel was insufficient. In April, he said Parnell’s motion should be denied.
Through his attorneys, Parnell filed “timely” objections to Langstaff’s report, leaving the final say to Judge Sands, who was also the 2014 trial judge who sentenced Parnell in 2015. Since that trial, Sands became a senior-status judge in Georgia’s Middle District.
Sands found that Parnell failed to show that his defense lawyers did anything unreasonable in not going for a change of venue or that the decision prejudiced him. Parnell’s defense team decided not to pursue a change of venue and it was a reasonable choice, Sands and Langstaff both agreed.
Parnell also argued that at trial his defense team failed to strike certain jurors for cause, but Sands says the petitioner fails to make that case as well. “In the Recommendation, Judge Langstaff found that counsel decided not to move to strike jurors who heard about deaths because jurors expressed that they could be impartial and counsel believed that moving to strike them would be futile,” Sands wrote in his denial.
Sands also did not approve there being any appealability of his final order. However, a Motion 2255 appeal can be granted by the appellate court.
If the 11th Circuit finds Parnell’s sentence was not authorized by law, or that there was a denial or infringement of his constitutional rights, it must do one of the following:
- vacate and set the judgment aside and free him.
- vacate and set aside the judgment and resentence him,
- grant a new trial, or
- correct the sentence.
Michael Parnell, Stewart’s brother and co-defendant in the 2014 jury trial continues to wait for Sand’s decision on his Motion 2255.
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