Decade-old case of putrid shrimp takes rare turn
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
The story of the rancid shrimp, which began in 1991, has been called the criminal case "that will never end."
Now, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered at least one more chapter in the prosecution of Sigma International, the St. Petersburg seafood importers originally accused of selling thousands of pounds of tainted shrimp marinated in chlorine and lemon juice to mask the smell.
In a unusual move, the 12-member appeals court has decided to hear the case as a group instead of relying on the previous rulings of a three-judge panel. The decision, released Monday, could be good news for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, which came under fire last year when the three-judge panel overturned the convictions and harshly criticized the prosecutor's conduct.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rhodes, who is handling the appeal, was cautiously optimistic.
"It's kind of like starting over at square one," Rhodes said. "On the other hand, they could hear the arguments as a group and simply reinstate the three-judge panel's decision."
In the vast majority of cases, the appellate court decisions are made by a three-judge panel, not all 12 judges. In the Sigma case, only 10 of the 12 judges will actually hear the case. One position on the court is vacant, and Judge Charles Wilson has recused himself as he was the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida before his appointment to the appellate court in 1999.
Neither Rhodes nor the defense attorneys on the case could say for sure why the court has decided to take this rare step. The judges might not agree with the earlier rulings or might want to clarify individual issues, they said.
"You can interpet this in a lot of different ways," said attorney John Fitzgibbons, who represents Sigma vice president William Andrew "Andy" Walton.
Investigators began looking into Sigma in 1991. Four years later, a grand jury indicted Sigma and six company officials, charging them with conspiracy to defraud, among other charges. Prosecutors said the chemically treated putrid shrimp ended up in grocery stores and restaurants, but it is unknown whether anyone got sick from it.
The 10-week trial ended in felony guilty verdicts against the company, Walton and plant manager Charles Sternisha. Walton was sentenced to 41 months in prison and fined $10,000. Sternisha received 27 months and was fined $6,000. A judge also fined the company $1-million. The men remained free during the appeals.
In 1999, the three-judge panel affirmed the convictions but asked the judge to reduce the sentences.
The judges also said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Rubinstein's conduct was "unacceptable."
In reaction to the harsh criticism, federal prosecutors asked for the ruling to be reconsidered. The defendants, too, asked for reconsideration.
The next ruling, in March 2001, was even worse for the prosecutors. With new evidence, the three-judge panel overturned the convictions.
Soon after the March ruling, the participants signed a plea agreement to avoid another trial. Sigma agreed to pay a $1-million fine and Walton and Sternisha would avoid prison. That agreement, however, was never finalized in court.
The case is scheduled to be submitted to the appellate court during the week of June 10.
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