A Michigan judge threw out felony charges Tuesday against seven people in the Flint water scandal, including two former state health officials blamed for deaths from Legionnaires' disease.
The dismissal was significant but not a complete surprise after the Michigan Supreme Court in June said a different judge acting as a one-person grand jury had no authority to issue indictments.
Judge Elizabeth Kelly rejected efforts by the attorney general's office to just send the cases to Flint District Court and turn them into criminal complaints, a typical path to filing felony charges in Michigan. It was a last-gasp effort to keep things afloat.
"Anything arising out of the invalid indictments are irreconcilably tainted from inception. ... Simply put, there are no valid charges,” Kelly said.
Kelly's decision doesn't affect former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. That's only because he was charged with two misdemeanors — willful neglect of duty — and his case is being handled by another judge. But he, too, was indicted in a process declared invalid by the Supreme Court. His next hearing is Oct. 26.
In 2014, Flint managers 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 wasn’t treated to reduce its corrosive qualities. Lead broke off from old pipes and contaminated the system for more than a year.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission said it was the result of systemic racism, doubting that the water switch and the brush-off of complaints in the majority-Black city would have occurred 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 not adequate words to express the anger and disappointment felt by our team, who have spent years on this case only to see it thwarted based upon a new interpretation of a nearly century-old law,” the statement said.
Prosecutors, however, didn't mention that the Supreme Court's summer opinion was unanimous. The attorney general's office didn't indicate what's next, only that it will “continue its pursuit of justice for Flint.”
Besides lead contamination, the Flint River water was blamed for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which typically spreads through cooling systems.
Former state health director Nick Lyon and former chief medical executive Eden Wells were charged with involuntary manslaughter in nine deaths linked to Legionnaires'. They were accused of failing to timely warn the Flint area about the outbreak.
Lyon's attorneys praised Kelly's decision and urged the attorney general's office to close a “misguided prosecution.”
“This misuse of the criminal justice system has to stop,” Chip Chamberlain and Ron DeWaard said. “Misleading statements about what Director Lyon did or didn’t do contribute nothing to a constructive public dialogue and do not represent justice for anyone.”
Besides Lyon and Wells, charges were dismissed against Snyder’s longtime fixer in state government, Rich Baird; former senior aide Jarrod Agen; former Flint managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley; and Nancy Peeler, a former health department manager.
Michigan's six-year statute of limitations could be a problem in some cases if the attorney general's office wants to file charges again. The deadline, however, would be longer for charges faced by Lyon and Wells.
Prosecutors in Michigan typically file felony charges in District Court after a police investigation. A one-judge grand jury was extremely rare and had mostly been used in Detroit and Flint to protect witnesses, especially in violent crimes, who could testify in private.
Prosecutors Fadwa Hammoud and Kym Worthy chose that path in the Flint water probe to hear evidence in secret and get indictments against Snyder and others.
But the state Supreme Court said Michigan law is clear: A one-judge grand jury can't issue indictments. The process apparently had 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 England in the 17th century.
An effort to hold people criminally responsible for Flint's lead-in-water disaster has lasted years and produced little.
Before leaving office in 2019, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, had pledged to put people in prison. But the results were different: Seven people pleaded no contest to misdemeanors that were eventually scrubbed from their records.
After Dana Nessel, a Democrat, was elected, she got rid of special counsel Todd Flood and put Hammoud, the state's solicitor 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 trial and lost; we never even had a chance to get that far. ... The attorney general's team owes us to try again and do it right, but in my gut it's going to go 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 lead level in kids.
Facing a wave 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 is going to children.
Flint in 2015 returned to a water system based in southeastern Michigan. Meanwhile, roughly 10,100 lead or steel water lines had been replaced at homes by last December.
The city had 100,000 residents in 2010, but the population fell roughly 20% to 81,000 by the 2020 census, following the water crisis, according to the government.
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Ed White, The Associated Press