Jury won't consider deaths in Ga. salmonella trial
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 11: Greg Walden, Congressman (D-OR) holds a sample of recall food products during the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter Wednesday morning in Rayburn Building in SE DC. (Photo by Kevin Clark/Washington Post/Getty Images)
BLAKELY, GA - FEBRUARY 5: The front entrance of the Peanut Corporation of America Plant is seen February 5, 2009 in Blakely, Georgia. The plant is linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak from tainted peanut butter that has sickened over 500 people and prompted international product recalls. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Jeff Almer of Savage, Minn., appears on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to examine the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products. His mother, mother, 72-year-old Shirley Mae Almer, shown in a family photo, died after eating tainted peanut butter at a Brainerd, Minn., assisted-living home. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE -In this Jan. 29, 2009 file photo, an Early County, Ga. Sheriff's car sits parked in front of the the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, Ga. A federal grand jury indicted four employees of a peanut company, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds. The indictment was unsealed in federal court in Georgia and charges four employees with Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)
Three-year-old Jacob Hurley joins his father, Peter Hurley, at the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations during a hearing on the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. Peter Hurley, testified to the subcommittee how Jacob was sickened by his favorite snack because the crackers contained tainted peanut products. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 04: A jar of peanut butter sits on the dias as HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt speaks with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., before the start of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on food safety on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007. The jar of peanut butter, which belongs to one of Sen. Burr's committee staff members, was recalled due to the possibility of salmonella contamination. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
Glen Martin, left, and John Dyke, connect an eight-row lister to a tractor before preparing a 30-acre peanut field on Martin & Sons Farm Monday, April 6, 2009, near Brownfield, Texas. Peanuts make up about 10% of the farm's 4,500 acres. The battered peanut industry is involved in a lobbying and public relations campaign in Washington, a delicate strategy to help the industry rebound after the salmonella outbreak linked to the Peanut Corp. of America. (AP photo/Geoffrey McAllister)
Glen Martin, left, and John Dyke, connect an eight-row lister to a tractor before preparing a 30-acre peanut field on Martin & Sons Farm Monday, April 6, 2009, near Brownfield, Texas. Peanuts make up about 10% of the farm's 4,500 acres. The battered peanut industry is involved in a lobbying and public relations campaign in Washington, a delicate strategy to help the industry rebound after the salmonella outbreak linked to the Peanut Corp. of America. (AP Photo/Geoffrey McAllister)
The Peanut Corp. of America plant is seen on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009, in Blakely, Ga. The plant that may be linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak. Peanut Corp. of America voluntarily recalled peanut butter produced at the plant, pending the outcome of an investigation. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor)
FILE - In this Thursday, March 12, 2009 file photo, Peanut Corporation of America's president Stewart Parnell, arrives at United States Federal Court in Lynchburg, Va. The nation's first federal criminal trial stemming from a deadly outbreak of food-borne illness is presenting jurors with a disconcerting fact: America's food safety largely depends on the honor system. Witnesses say Parnell and other Peanut Corporation of America workers knowingly shipped salmonella tainted nuts with faked data showing they were clean. Their defense, Salmonella tests aren't even required by law. (AP Photo/Don Petersen, File)
File-This Nov. 27, 2012 file photo shows the Sunland Inc. peanut butter and nut processing plant in eastern New Mexico, near Portales. Nearly a million jars of peanut butter are being dumped at a New Mexico landfill to expedite the sale of Sunland Inc. the bankrupt peanut-processing plant that was at the heart of a 2012 salmonella outbreak and nationwide recall. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)
Three-year-old Jacob Hurley smiles and waves at the urging of congressmen at the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations during a hearing on the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. His father, Peter Hurley, testified to the subcommittee how Jacob was sickened by his favorite snack, Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter, because the crackers contained tainted peanut products from Peanut Corporation of America. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
From left, Jeffrey Almer, Lou Tousignant, and Peter K. Hurley, are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, prior to testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to examine the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America. Almer's mother died after eating tainted peanut butter, as did Tousignant's father, a veteran of combat in Korea. Hurley's son was sickened from tainted peanut butter crackers but has recovered. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., left, watches as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., right, holds up a container of food items that were recalled due to the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Dr. Stephen Sundlof, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The hearing was on the national outbreak salmonella through peanut processing plants.(AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 04: U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) (2nd-R) speaks about salmonella poisoning while flanked by Gabrielle Meunier (L), whose son was sickened by salmonella tainted peanut butter, Jeff Almer (R), whose mother died of salmonella poisoning in peanut butter, and Caroline Smith DeWaal (2nd-L), from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, during a news conference on Capitol Hill February 4, 2009 in Washington, DC. Rep. DeLauro is introducing food safety reform legislation which would modernize food safety laws and restructure food safety efforts by splitting the Food and Drug Administration into two separate agencies. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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By RUSS BYNUM
ALBANY, Ga. (AP) - 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.
Tainted peanut butter from the company's plant in rural Blakely, Georgia, ended up in jars, packaged crackers and other snacks. In 2009, hundreds of people were sickened and the outbreak led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
The peanut plant's quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, is charged along with Stewart Parnell with obstructing justice. Jury deliberations were to resume in U.S. District Court after a three-day recess. Experts say it is the first time food processors have been tried in a federal food-poisoning case.
Prosecutors spent nearly six weeks presenting the jury with 46 witnesses and an estimated 1,000 documents. Testimony included that people got sick, but attorneys and witnesses never mentioned that some died.
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.
Defense attorneys have acknowledged the Georgia plant shipped tainted peanut butter and covered up positive salmonella tests, but they say the scheme was carried out behind the backs of the Parnell brothers by two plant managers who pleaded guilty. Before the trial began, defense lawyers asked the judge to rule any evidence of sickness or death out-of-bounds. They argued it was irrelevant to the prosecutors' fraud case and would unfairly "sway the passions of the jury" toward convictions.
Moore said his prosecutors also had doubts about whether death evidence would be admissible, or whether convictions in the case would be vulnerable to appeals if the trial judge allowed the jury to hear that people died. Prosecutors backed off before Judge W. Louis Sands ruled he would allow evidence that people got sick.
Bill Marler, an attorney who has represented victims of food-borne illnesses for two decades, said prosecutors made a wise legal decision. His clients include families of five people who died in the salmonella case.
"It really is a balance between the prejudicial impact on the jury and whether or not you really needed to have that evidence in that trial," Marler said.
The three defendants, charged with 71 total counts, still face severe punishment if convicted. Prosecutors have said Stewart Parnell faces a maximum of 754 years in prison and $17 million in fines. And Moore said he intends to present evidence of the deaths during sentencing if there are convictions.
Both Moore and Marler said delving into the death toll would have made the Peanut Corporation trial far more complicated. Medical tests confirmed people who ate peanut butter from the Georgia plant were sickened by salmonella. It's harder to be sure salmonella killed some of them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracked the outbreak from victims back to the plant, determined 714 people got sick in 43 U.S. states. Three deaths were reported in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina. But the CDC hedged when tying fatalities to salmonella.
"The nine deaths reported are linked to the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak, but were not definitively caused by Salmonella," the CDC said in a May 2009 report.
Marler said all nine who died tended to be older people with other problems that made them vulnerable to severe effects from food poisoning.
"They have cancer, they have diabetes, they have heart disease and their immune systems are compromised," Marler said. "There's no question they were infected. It's really about what prompted their deaths."
Shirley Mae Almer, 72, died in December 2008 after eating tainted peanut butter at a Minnesota hospital where she was being treated for dehydration. She had also battled lung cancer and a brain tumor.
Her son, Jeff Almer, said authorities told him the jury wouldn't hear about his mother's death. He said he understood the decision, but still worries jurors don't know the case's full impact.
"The details and the technicalities get to be a bit much," Almer said of the case prosecutors presented. "I thought the deaths were a shock to the system and justified and validated everything."