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Brothers linked to tainted cantaloupe avoid prison

Federal judge delivers sentence Tuesday in 2011 listeria outbreak

Cantaloupe Growers Avoid Prison For Listeria Outbreak

DENVER - A judge Tuesday sentenced Eric Jensen and Ryan Jensen to home detention and probation for their involvement in an outbreak of bacteria in cantaloupe.

Each brother was sentenced to five years probation with the first six months being in home detention, along with 100 hours of community service and a fine of $150,000 as restitution to the victims.

The Jensens' farm in Holly was the source of a 2011 listeria outbreak that sickened people in 28 states;  147 people were hospitalized and 33 people died.

The Jensens pleaded guilty in the fall of 2013 to misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.  They also met with victims' families and answered questions.

Because of their cooperation with authorities, the Jensens requested to be placed on probation instead of sent to prison.  Presiding Judge Michael Hegarty and federal prosecutors agreed.

"I must deliver both justice and mercy at the same time," said Hegarty near the end of the morning sentencing hearing at U.S. District Court in Denver.  "We're sort of plowing new ground with this (kind) of a prosecution."

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney representing 46 victims and families in separate damage lawsuits, said he also agrees with the sentence.

"There was no intent on the part of the Jensens for this to happen," Marler said.  "I think judges and prosecutors are a little loathe to seek jail time for people who don't intend to have these consequences happen."

Marler called the fact that the Jensens were prosecuted at all, "a big deal."

"It's a really big wake up call for farmers and manufacturers of food," he said.  "I don't think jail necessarily changes that, or a lack of jail changes that."

Penny Hauser of Monument attended the hearing.  Her husband died in the outbreak and she wasn't pleased with the sentence.

"I think it's too little, too late," she said.  "That's why I think if they had gotten some jail time, it would have made a big difference."

Paul Schwartz agreed.  He also attended the hearing because his father died after eating the bad cantaloupe.

"It was not a good time at all for my family," he said.  "Is that a terrible thing (for the Jensens) to face financial ruin with the death and destruction they caused?"

More sympathetic to the Jensens was Jenifer Exley.  Even though her father died in the outbreak, she said her family asked for probation for the brothers.

"I think they're good people," she said.  "They just made some bad choices along the way with their farming practices."

KRDO NewsChannel 13 tried to reach the attorneys for the Jensens, Forrest Lewis and Richard Banta.  Lewis declined comment and Banta was unavailable.

The Jensens each faced a maximum penalty of six years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.  They apologized to families attending the hearing.

"This has been a huge tragedy," Eric Jensen said.  "We are very, very sorry.  We hope it leads to better understanding of food safety."

"My most sincere apologies and deepest regrets," Ryan Jensen said.

The Jensens currently are suing Primus Group, a California-based food auditing firm, for giving Jensen Farms a "superior" safety rating as the outbreak developed.  The Jensens said they received misleading advice from Primus and that the firm was wrong in claiming to have professional expertise.

Marler said the separate civil lawsuits likely won't be heard in court until next year.  His firm represents four families in the Colorado Springs area.

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