A jury weighing criminal charges Thursday against the owner of a Georgia peanut plant blamed for a nationwide salmonella outbreak five years ago will decide the case without hearing one fact — that nine people died after eating the company’s tainted peanut butter.
Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and two co-defendants have been on trial since Aug. 1 and the jury started deliberations last Friday. Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, are charged with knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter to customers and faking lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.
Prosecutor Patrick Hearn, in his closing argument Friday, said Parnell and his co-defendants were greedy enough “to toss food safety to the wind.” But he stopped short of describing the outbreak’s full consequences.
“They served up salmonella to people and they ate it,” Hearn said. “This needs to never happen again.”
Why not tell the jury of the deaths? The Parnell brothers aren’t charged with killing or sickening anybody.
Instead, prosecutors decided they could build a stronger case charging them with defrauding their customers — food producers including Kellogg’s — and selling them tainted goods, said U.S. Attorney Michael Moore of Georgia’s Middle District, whose office tried the case.
“We wanted to make sure we kept the jury focused on the conduct that led to these people’s sickness, but not let the case get into the medical history of every victim out there” with testimony on individual deaths, Moore said.