KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
An executive at the Peanut Company of America has been sentenced to spend 28 years in federal prison. Stewart Parnell was convicted of knowingly shipping contaminated peanuts. Nine people died in the salmonella outbreak that followed, and dozens more were sickened. Here to talk about the case is NPR justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. And Carrie, a 28-year prison term in a food safety case is unprecedented, no? I mean, why did the judge hand down such a tough sentence?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Kelly, it could've been even worse. The Justice Department had actually asked for a life sentence for this man, Stewart Parnell. Why so long - the sheer number of people who were injured or hurt in this incident. Nine people died. Seven-hundred people more got sick, the Justice Department said during the trial. Several of the survivors appeared in the courtroom today to ask for a tough penalty for this man.
MCEVERS: What kind of evidence did prosecutors have tying this former CEO to the actual salmonella contamination?
JOHNSON: First, prosecutors introduced at the trial evidence that the plant was a disaster area - evidence of leaks in the roof, infestation by rodents and roaches and mold. And then, maybe even more importantly, in terms of tying the CEO, Stewart Parnell, to this conduct, they also found documents like emails and other papers indicating the Peanut Corporation had tested the peanuts, found bacteria and sent the product out to customers anyway. Some emails were as specific as the CEO saying delays were costing us, quote, "huge money."
MCEVERS: And Stewart Parnell didn't testify during his trial. What did he tell the judge at sentencing?
JOHNSON: At sentencing today, he was contrite. He said he was embarrassed and disgraced by what had happened. He asked for forgiveness. It's not clear he's going to get it.
MCEVERS: Should we expect to see more prosecutions over food-safety violations?
JOHNSON: Well, in fact, it's a priority of the Obama administration and the third in command at the Justice Department, Stuart Delery, to bring these kinds of cases. He's been talking at industry conferences. They've brought other cases, Kelly, but never gotten a penalty this severe.
MCEVERS: So about this penalty, I mean, some of the top bankers and mortgage brokers in the country never faced charges let alone prison time in the financial collapse. I mean, but a peanut executive will go to prison for 28 years?
JOHNSON: It's a fair question and one the Justice Department is going to get a lot in the weeks ahead. Just last week, the deputy attorney general gave a big speech in New York saying prosecutors are now going to require companies to provide more information about culpable individuals. The idea here is to charge more individuals with wrongdoing in corporations. But of course, it's too late now for many of those big, old financial fraud cases because the statute of limitations has long passed.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.