The trial of three people charged in a deadly salmonella outbreak linked to a southwest Georgia peanut plant could keep jurors tied up for more than two months, the trial judge said Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands told several dozen people called for jury duty that prosecutors alone may need eight weeks to present evidence at the trial of former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, his brother and food broker, Michael Parnell, and the peanut plant's quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson. The case could go much longer, depending on how many witnesses defense attorneys call.
The three defendants are charged with shipping tainted peanuts and covering up lab tests that were positive for salmonella. After three full days of jury selection that began Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys were scheduled to pick a final panel Thursday morning before delivering opening statements in the case.
In 2009, authorities traced salmonella that killed nine people and sickened more than 700 to Peanut Corporation's plant in Blakely, Georgia. The outbreak prompted one of the largest food recalls in history. The dead were from Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia, Idaho and North Carolina.
The judge ended up dismissing 10 potential jurors Wednesday who complained that a two-month trial would create hardships for them at work or school. That's half the number who asked to be spared from the lengthy case.
The jury panel was subjected to several hours of questions Wednesday aimed at helping prosecutors and defense attorneys decide whether to strike them from the final jury pool. They were asked if they had ever been sickened by food poisoning, if they regularly dealt with government inspectors at work and even if they had peanut allergies.
A few possible jurors said they had ties to parties in the case. One man said he knows one of the defendants, Wilkerson, because he had been her son's football coach. Two panelists said they knew one of Stewart Parnell's defense lawyers, Ken Hodges, when he formerly served as the local district attorney.
The Parnell brothers and Wilkerson were indicted last year on 76 criminal counts related to the shipping of peanuts. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson were also charged with obstruction of justice.
Georgia plant manager Samuel Lightsey pleaded guilty in May to seven criminal counts after reaching a deal with prosecutors. He will be sentenced later.
Food and Drug Administration inspectors found bad conditions in the company's southwest Georgia plant including mold, roaches and a leaky roof. Another plant in Plainview, Texas, was shuttered by the State Department of Health Services in February 2009, after product samples tested positive for salmonella. The company later went bankrupt.