Last minute plan to combine hearings for former peanut executives quashed by Magistrate

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Starting this morning in federal court in Albany, GA, brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell are getting the week to make collateral attacks on their prison sentences with back-to-back evidentiary hearings on their 2255 Motions.

Federal Magistrate Thomas Q. Langstaff on Friday ordered consecutive, not concurrent, hearings. And that was always the plan. But on Friday, the lawyers tossed in a motion to U.S. Court for the Middle District of Georgia requesting consolidation of the two evidentiary hearings.

“The Petitioners were tried as co-defendants and co-conspirators at a joint trial in this Court, and they raise two claims concerning their respective counsels’ failure to move for a change of venue and failure to move to strike jurors for cause,” the joint hearing motion said.

The ink on the motion, however, was barely dry Friday when Judge Langstaff flatly denied it. He had his reasons. The petitions are almost two years old; the evidentiary hearings have been scheduled for three months and rescheduled once to accommodate counsel and petitioners’ witnesses.

“The ineffective assistance of counsel issues raised in this petition and in the petition of the co-defendant are separate and distinct, as each Petitioner was represented by separate counsel at trial, and Petitioner Michael Parnell raises additional grounds for relief,” the judge wrote.

“Petitioner Stewart Parnell seeks to add the testimony of an expert witness, while Petitioner Michael Parnell does not. The Court has not ruled on whether the expert will be allowed to testify. Nevertheless, Petitioner Stewart Parnell’s motion to add the testimony of an expert witness could cause a possible continuation of Petitioner Stewart Parnell’s evidentiary hearing and delay the disposition of Petitioner Stewart Parnell’s § 2255 Motion for months. Petitioner Michael Parnell’s petition could be resolved sooner, with a briefing schedule to be set at the end of his evidentiary hearing on May 28, 2021.

“The Court believes that the most relevant testimony in these evidentiary hearings will come from the respective parties’ trial counsel. Those individuals will be the key witnesses, and there is no overlap between the respective trial counsel in this regard,” Langstaff wrote.

According to the denial order, the Magistrate’s courtroom is smaller than other courtrooms in Albany’s C.B. King Courthouse, raising concerns about pandemic distancing and security.

Stewart Parnell’s hearing, beginning at 9 a.m. today, is expected to take two to three days. Michael Parnell’s hearing is taking up to two days, starting at 9 a.m. Thursday. Langstaff’s order directs the government that Michael is not to appear in his courtroom until the start of the second hearing on May 27.

Michael Parnell’s attorney, Elliott M. Harding; Stewart Parnell’s attorneys, Amy Levin Weil and Amy Lee Copeland; and the counsel for the United States, Speare I. Hodges, signed the motion to join the hearings.

Judges often go along with motions that are agreed to by both defense and prosecution. The court docket does not contain any mention of a joint hearing until Friday.

Michael Parnell picked up a new attorney on May 19. Richmond defense attorney William J. Dinkin will be assisting Harding when the second hearing begins on Thursday.

Stewart Parnell, 66, and Michael Parnell, 62, seek post-conviction relief in the evidentiary hearings over their 2255 motions. They were convicted in 2014 by a federal jury in Albany for multiple felonies associated with a deadly 46-state Salmonella outbreak.

In 2015, the trial judge sentenced Stewart Parnell to 28 years in federal prison, and Michael Parnell got 20 years. The appellate court upheld their convictions and sentences.

The outbreak was associated with a peanut processing plant located in Blakely, GA, operated by the Parnell-owned Peanut Corporation of America. Thousands were sickened by nine died from contaminated peanut butter and peanut paste from the facility.

Stewart Parnell was PCA’s chief executive, and Micheal Parnell worked with its customers as a peanut broker. At trial, PCA was shown to be a reckless company that would ship peanut products that tested positive for dangerous pathogens.

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