A Michigan judge on Tuesday dismissed charges against seven people in the Flint water scandal, including two former state health officials accused of Legionnaires’ disease deaths.
The dismissal was significant but not a complete surprise after the Michigan Supreme Court said in June that another judge serving as a one-man jury had no authority. to issue charges.
Judge Elizabeth Kelly rejected efforts by the attorney general’s office just sending the cases to Flint District Court and turning them into criminal complaints, a typical route for filing felony charges in Michigan. It was a last gasp to keep things flowing.
“Anything arising from the invalid charges is irreconcilably tainted from the beginning. … In short, there are no valid charges,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s decision does not affect former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. That’s only because he was charged with two misdemeanors – willful dereliction of duty – and his case is heard by another judge. But he too was prosecuted in a process that was declared invalid by the Supreme Court. His next hearing is on October 26.
In 2014, Flint leaders appointed by Snyder took the city out of a regional water system and began using the Flint River to save money while a new pipeline to Lake Huron was being built. But the river water was not treated to reduce its corrosive properties. Lead broke off old pipes and contaminated the system for more than a year.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission said it was the result of systemic racismdoubt that the water switch and purge of grievances in the majority-black city would have happened in a white, prosperous community.
The Attorney General’s office lashed out at the courts after its latest defeat, declaring that “well-connected, wealthy individuals with political power and influence” had prevailed over Flint residents.
“There are insufficient words to express the anger and disappointment felt by our team who have spent years on this case only to see it thwarted based on a new interpretation of a nearly century-old law,” the statement said.
However, the prosecutors did not mention that the Supreme Court’s summer opinion was unanimous. The attorney general’s office did not say what’s next, only that it will “continue its pursuit of justice for Flint.”
In addition to lead contamination, Flint River water was blamed for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which is typically spread through cooling systems.
Former state health director Nick Lyon and former chief medical officer Eden Wells were charged with involuntary manslaughter in nine deaths linked to Legionnaires. They were accused of not warning the Flint area in time about the outbreak.
Lyons’ attorneys praised Kelly’s decision and called on the attorney general’s office to close a “misleading prosecution.”
“This abuse of the criminal justice system must stop,” said Chip Chamberlain and Ron DeWaard. “Misleading statements about what Director Lyon did or did not do contribute nothing to constructive public dialogue and do not represent justice for anyone.”
In addition to Lyon and Wells, charges were dismissed against Snyder’s longtime fixer in state government, Rich Baird; former senior assistant Jarrod Agen; former Flint managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley; and Nancy Peeler, a former head of the health department.
Michigan’s six-year statute of limitations can be a problem in some cases if the attorney general’s office wants to file charges again. However, the deadline would be longer for charges Lyon and Wells face.
Prosecutors in Michigan typically file felony charges in District Court after a police investigation. A single-judge jury was extremely rare and had been used mostly in Detroit and Flint to protect witnesses, especially in violent crimes, who could testify in private.
Prosecutors Fadwa Hammoud and Kym Worthy chose that route in the Flint water probe to hear evidence in secret and get charges against Snyder and others.
But the state Supreme Court said Michigan law is clear: A single-judge grand jury cannot issue indictments. The process had apparently never been challenged.
Chief Justice Bridget McCormack called it a “Star Chamber comeback”, a pejorative reference to an oppressive, closed-door style of justice in 17th-century England.
An effort to hold people criminally responsible for Flint’s lead-in-water disaster has dragged on for years and yielded little.
Before leaving office in 2019, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, had promised to put people in prison. But the results were different: Seven people pleaded no contest to misdemeanors that were eventually expunged from their records.
After Dana Nessel, a Democrat, was elected, she got rid of special counsel Todd Flood and put Hammoud, the state attorney general, and Worthy, the respected Wayne County prosecutor, in charge.
Flint activist Melissa Mays said residents have been let down.
“This team of people who promised justice for Flint didn’t file the right paperwork,” she said. “It’s not like they went to court and lost; we never even had a chance to get this far. … The Attorney General’s team owes it to us to try again and get it right, but in my gut, it’s going nowhere. It was just a show.”
Flint was poisoned, Mays said, “but not one person is behind bars.”
There is no dispute that lead affects the brain and nervous system, especially in children. Experts have not identified a safe level of lead in children.
Facing a flurry of lawsuits, the state agreed to pay $600 million as part of a $626 million settlement with Flint residents and property owners who were harmed by lead-tainted water. Most of the money goes to children.
Flint in 2015 returned to a water system based in southeast Michigan. Meanwhile, around 10,100 lead or steel water pipes had been replaced in homes last December.
The city had 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, but the population fell by about 20% to 81,000 at the 2020 census, following the water crisis, according to the government.
Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwritez