Top hearing questions: What did the jury know, why wasn’t the trial moved

ALBANY, GA — Stewart Parnell, his hands-free but his wrists attached to the chain around his waist and ankles, was back in the federal courthouse Monday, where a jury nearly seven years ago found him guilty of multiple federal food safety crimes.

His reappearance at the C.B. King federal courthouse in Albany, GA, was also a bit of a reunion as Parnell spent the day listening to testimony by three of his defense attorneys from his 2014 trial. One issue is whether Parnell was the victim of ineffective counsel when he was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.

When he went to trial on multiple federal felony charges in 2013, Parnell seemed to have a “dream team” for his defense. Among them were former Albany prosecutor and now judge  Ken Hodges, recently elected to the Georgia Court of Appeals; former federal prosecutor Thomas J. Bondurant; and Gentry Locke Partner E. Scott Austin.

Judge Hodges, Bondurant, and Austin Monday found themselves under questioning from the “two Amys.” Amy Levin Weil of Atlanta and Amy Lee Copeland of Savannah are independent private practice attorneys. Each was previously an assistant U.S. attorney with a decade of doing appellate work for the government.

Judge Hodges testified in person while Bondurant and Austin participated by the court’s video setup. The evidentiary hearing before Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff continues today.

A second hearing for Stewart Parnell’s brother Michael Parnell begins on Thursday morning. He is serving a 20-year sentence for his federal crimes.

Should this week’s evidentiary hearings prove there was a violation of the Parnells’ constitutional rights, one or both of the brothers could go free.

Stewart Parnell’s appellate attorneys for the Motion 2255 hearings spent the day soliciting as much as they could pull out of Hodges, Bondurant, and August about how the defense team handled two issues.

  • Why did the team not try and move the Peanut Corporation of America criminal trial with a change of venue motion?
  • And how was it that the jury ended up making its decision with knowledge of deaths caused by the 46-state Salmonella outbreak linked to PCA peanut products?

After the jury’s convictions, the trial judge investigated whether the jury was tainted because some jurors knew that the Salmonella outbreak caused deaths. The jury knew the Salmonella outbreak might have sicken thousands, but the judge permitted no mention of the nine deaths linked to the outbreak.

The trial judge ultimately ruled the jury wasn’t tainted and was able to reach fair verdicts, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld his decision.

Judge Hodges told the hearing the jury “discussed facts not in evidence” because there was no mention in any court testimony about the deaths, which did become part of the jury deliberations.

As the three gave their testimony Monday, it became clear that the defense team had its disagreements. Bondurant, retired after three decades as a top federal prosecutor in Virginia, was new to Gentry-Locke.  Yet, he reportedly hired Hodges on his own and informed the others at Gentry-Locke.

Nevertheless, the team’s decision not to file a motion for a change of venue meant they lost that as an appeal issue.  At the time, the defense team thought their biggest pre-trial victory was the government’s agreement not to produce any evidence at trial about the Salmonella deaths.

At Monday’s hearing, Stewart was never out of the sight of federal agents, who are responsible for him during his transit from federal prison. Parnell’s family, relatives of victims of the Salmonella outbreak and lawyers did not fill the Magistrate Courtroom, but they were “close enough.”

Former Gentry-Locke attorney Justin Lugar is scheduled to appear today. He is now an assistant U.S. Attorney.

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