By Kelly House, Bridge Michigan
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- State prosecutors admitted defeat Tuesday in their effort to prosecute public officials over harm caused by the Flint water crisis
- Courts have dismissed all charges against the nine people indicted in 2021, including former Gov. Rick Snyder
- One Flint pastor called the news unsurprising, saying that ‘injustice, in this community, has been the norm’
It appears no additional public officials will be held criminally responsible for the Flint water crisis.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said Tuesday it has ended its quest to prosecute public officials for their role in the crisis, shortly after the state Supreme Court shot down efforts to charge former Gov. Rick Snyder.
“At this time the Court has left us with no option but to consider the Flint Water Prosecutions closed,” read a statement from the prosecution team appointed by Nessel.
- End of the line for Flint criminal charges: Supreme Court declines AG’s appeal
- Supreme Court: Flint water indictments against Rick Snyder, others invalid
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The team, led by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Chief Deputy Attorney General Fadwa Hammoud, promised to release a “full and thorough report to the public in the months to come detailing the efforts and decisions of the State prosecution.”
That report is expected next year.
News that nobody will be prosecuted left Allen Overton, pastor of Flint’s Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, dejected but unsurprised.
“Injustice, in this community, has been the norm,” Overton said. “This just continues to show us that this legal system that we call justice is not really justice at all.”
The news marks a major defeat for Nessel, who made headlines shortly after taking office in 2019 when she opted to throw out earlier criminal charges filed under her Republican predecessor, Bill Schuette, and relaunched the state’s investigation.
By then, prosecutors hired by Schuette had secured a handful of misdemeanor plea deals and promised more charges were coming. But the new Nessel-appointed team argued Schuette’s prosecutors had failed to pursue “all available evidence.” They dropped all remaining cases and started over.
The Detroit News last week estimated the state has spent at least $60 million on legal costs tied to the crisis, including the criminal case and litigation that led to a $626 million legal settlement with the state and other parties.
The Flint water crisis began in 2014 when the impoverished, majority Black city, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money, without requiring corrosion control to keep lead from leaching from the city’s older water pipes.
As residents of the then-99,000-person city complained of murky and foul-smelling water, the Snyder administration downplayed the threat and insisted the water was safe, before later acknowledging a problem. The lead crisis coincided with two Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks and 12 deaths.
The crisis posed a particular risk for the tens of thousands of Flint residents who were children at the time. Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system, particularly in children whose brains are still developing. There is no safe level of exposure.
In the years since, government, academic and nonprofit organizations have marshaled resources to intervene, including monitoring the health of Flint children. A settlement reached with the state of Michigan and other parties devotes most payouts to people who were children at the time of the crisis, while reserving additional money for special education services.
The prosecution team secured indictments against nine people in 2021, relying on a one-person grand jury, Genesee County Circuit Judge David J. Newblatt, to issue the indictments.
Those originally charged include Snyder; former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon; former MDHHS employee Nancy Peeler; former MDHHS medical executive Eden Wells; Jarrod Agen and Richard Baird, who were top aides to Snyder; Howard Croft, former director of Flint’s Department of Public Works; and former Flint emergency managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley.
The one-person grand jury process, in which a single judge reviewed evidence and decided on charges out of public view, was quickly criticized by defendants’ lawyers — and some prominent voices in Flint.
“It was totally political,” said Overton. “I’ve been in disagreement with this whole process.”
The Supreme Court later ruled that closed-door process to be improper, concluding that Michigan law did not allow the grand juror to issue indictments. The court said Flint defendants had a statutory right to a preliminary exam, something that the grand jury process denied them.
The Supreme Court’s ruling prompted lower courts to dismiss charges against all parties. Prosecutors’ attempts to appeal repeatedly failed, culminating in a final Supreme Court order Tuesday that left in place the dismissal of misdemeanor charges against Snyder.
“We are not persuaded that the question presented should be reviewed by this Court,” stated the order from the high court.
The former governor lauded the dismissals in a Facebook post in which he vowed to work toward a goal of ending “political persecutions” in Michigan.
“Unfortunately, the only way to end political persecutions would require electing attorney generals and prosecutors who believe in facts, have a moral compass, and act with civility,” he said.
The decision was no surprise: The court last month used identical language to dismiss charges against seven other defendants.
Prosecutors continue to defend their use of a one-person grand jury, noting that it had a long history of use in Michigan before the Supreme Court rejected its use in Flint.
“The Court decided that a process which has stood in place for over a century, one whose legitimacy the Court upheld repeatedly, was simply not ‘good enough’ to hold those responsible for the Flint Water Crisis accountable for their actions,” the prosecution team wrote. “Our disappointment in the Michigan Supreme Court is exceeded only by our sorrow for the people of Flint.”
Snyder’s lawyer, Brian Lennon, argued that the longstanding use of one-person juries in Michigan doesn’t make them legal.
Given that the process was often used in Wayne County, Michigan’s most racially-diverse county Lennon said, “we suspect that many minority defendants were subjected to this unconstitutional process,” but lacked the money to challenge its constitutionality.
“Perhaps now, that unconscionable practice will finally end,” he said.
Prosecutors noted that the criminal cases were dismissed on procedural grounds rather than the facts of the cases. Although state law requires evidence presented to the grand juror to remain sealed, prosecutors said they plan to work with the Legislature to change the law, in hopes of allowing the public to view the evidence against the former Flint defendants.
“To allow the people of Flint the opportunity to know how and why they were exposed to lethal chemicals in their water is the very least that can be done,” they said.
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Featured image: The Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday shot down state prosecutors’ efforts to criminally charge former Gov. Rick Snyder over the Flint water crisis, marking the end of the state’s effort to convict public officials for their role in the crisis. (Bridge file photo)