Peanut Company Owner Accused of Fraud Loses Psychology Expert Witness Testimony

Kristin Casler

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— Updated on June 22, 2020


United States of America v. Stewart Parnell, No. 1:13–cr–12 (WLS), U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Albany Div.; June 24, 2014


Stewart Parnell was the CEO of Peanut Corporation of America. He faces a 76-count indictment alleging he sold salmonella-contaminated peanuts. The indictment alleges that he defrauded his customers by falsifying certificates of analysis, which consequently certified peanut products for the absence of harmful microbiological content, and fraudulently shipping peanut products that did not meet customer specifications. The charges include conspiracy, multiple counts of introducing misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud, interstate shipments fraud, wire fraud, as well as the  obstruction of justice.

Psychology Expert Witness:

Parnell’s neuropsychology expert, Dr. Joseph Conley, opined regarding Parnell’s functional deficiencies, including attention deficient hyperactivity disorder, and their subsequent impact on his professional life and their interplay with any criminal allegations. Parnell asserted that the testimony will show that he did not commit the crimes alleged because he never factually acquired the knowledge necessary to form any intent about the actions alleged. Specifically, it is highly unlikely that he would have read, much less appreciated, the potential import of the communications that the government’s case hinges on.

Conley’s evaluation showed that Parnell exhibited common symptoms of ADHD. Accordingly, Conley concluded the test results showed Parnell to be impulsive, easily distractible, and evinced “impaired self-monitoring, impaired volition, and impaired executive planning ability.”. While Parnell coped well with the disorder as a salesman, “it is likely that, being thrust, for the first time, into the role of an executive, … he lacked both the experience and executive neurocognitive capacity to function at this level.”

“Clearly, with such deficits in executive functioning,” Dr. Conley concluded, “Mr. Parnell was and remains cognitively incapable of fielding, delineating, organizing, and integrating the daily plethora of phone calls and E-mails required in managing three companies.”

Moreover, Conley reviewed additional information from medical records, family members, and tests to rule out malingering.

Hence, the government moved to exclude Conley’s testimony under Daubert v. Merrell Dow. Pharm., Inc. (509 U.S. 579, 591–92, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 [1993]).

Admissibility of Psychology Expert Witness:

Judge W. Louis Sands for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia found that Conley’s testimony is inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The judge found that Parnell failed to demonstrate the link between his ADHD and the mens rea at issue.

“Parnell claims he will not offer Dr. Conley’s testimony to negate specific intent but rather to show he did not ‘factually acquire’ the knowledge alleged in the indictment,” the judge said. “This explanation is a distinction without a difference.”

Conley’s testimony is a diminished capacity defense, the judge said. That testimony is unhelpful to the jury. The allegations in this case involve a complex scheme to defraud, and allegations of willfulness. Not only errors and mistakes in processing calls and emails, the judge concluded.

Further, Conley had little knowledge of the actual allegations in this case, the judge said.

The judge noted that even if Conley’s testimony was otherwise relevant and admissible under Rule 702, it is inadmissible under Rule 403 because its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusing of the issues, or misleading the jury.

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