ALBANY, Ga. — 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.
US 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, Ga. 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 said 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. 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.
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.