By: April Carson
On Tuesday, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that former top state officials charged with misconduct in the Flint water crisis had been indicted improperly, upending several of the highest-profile criminal prosecutions in recent history and leaving residents frustrated by a lack of justice in criminal court.
The court’s decision was a victory for former Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials who had been facing trial on felony charges of willful neglect of duty in the Flint water crisis, which left lead-tainted water flowing through the city for 18 months.
“The people of Flint have waited five years for justice, and today’s ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court is a major setback,” said Bill Schuette, the former attorney general who brought the charges.
Last year, when they brought charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder and others for failing to safeguard the safety and health of Flint residents who were poisoned by increased levels of lead and Legionnaires' disease after the city's water source was changed in April 2014, prosecutors said that those people had neglected their duties.
Prosecutors were installed by Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, who used a single-person grand jury to issue the indictments against Mr. Snyder, a Republican, and eight others, including the former health director and former medical chief. The Supreme Court handed down a 6-0 decision on Tuesday, finding that single-person grand juries, which have long been used in Michigan, may not be utilized in such a manner. Prosecutors said they intended to continue pursuing the case using a different legal strategy.
The decision, which the court accepted without comment, was nevertheless seen as another snub by many in Flint, a city once known as the "Motown of the automobile industry," but which had struggled with neglect, blight and poverty long before the water problem. Flint residents had been calling for charges against Snyder and others for years, and there had been calls for an emergency oversight policy that gave state authorities the authority to take control of the financially embattled city government and change the water source.
“The court system should be embarrassed that it took this long,” said Claudia Perkins-Milton, a lifelong Flint resident and an advocate for water issues. “People are furious. Do you realize it's been eight years — eight? We've had to deal with this tragedy for eight years.”
Following the one-man grand jury's decision on Monday, a trio of defendants — not including David J. Snyder — appealed the legality of its use. The court's ruling was expected to upset the other prosecutions as well. For those who have maintained from the start that criminal charges were motivated by politics and unjustified, Tuesday's ruling was vindication. Mr. Snyder's lawyers said they would demand his case be dismissed.)
But Fadwa Hammoud, the state solicitor general who has helped lead the Flint prosecutions, said in a statement hours after the decision that "these cases are not over" and that "commentary to the contrary is premature and hasty."
“We are ready and determined to show in court the claims against the defendants, and we're dedicated to seeing this process through to its conclusion," Ms. Hammoud added.
The decision, however, still came as a major shock to the residents of Flint, who continue to distrust government. "It's a shame," Mayor Sheldon Neeley said. "I'm hoping that the prosecutors pursue these cases."
“This is another blow to the level of trust that individuals have in government,” Mr. Neeley stated. He went on to say, “People are upset and frustrated.”
From June 2014 through October 2015, at least nine people died of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area due to a breakdown at all levels of government. The water crisis, which caused thousands of residents in Flint to have dangerously high lead levels in their drinking water, has left many families wary of the tap water, even as city officials claim it is now safe to consume. Mr. Neeley said that the majority of the city's lead service lines have been replaced in recent years, but a few thousand of the aged pipes remain in the ground.
The charges filed by Ms. Nessel's team were not the first time prosecutors have attempted to put officials criminally liable for what took place in Flint. Before Ms. Nessel became governor, her Republican predecessor assisted with several prosecutions against 15 state and local officials for felonies as severe as involuntary manslaughter. However, prior to filing new charges against several of the same people, Ms. Nessel's staff had those cases dismissed in 2019.
The lead attorneys in the case, Ms. Hammoud and Kym Worthy, said they had “immediate and serious concerns about the prior team's investigative approach” and “legal theories” after the first batch of convictions was abruptly annulled in 2019.
Many people who had been convicted were released early because of lack of evidence, although the statute of limitations has now expired on most charges. But it is uncertain whether anyone will ever face trial after more than six years since the initial allegations were filed.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court declared that the institution of a single-member grand jury to issue indictments inhibited the accused from getting a preliminary examination, where evidence against them would have been presented in open court.
A one-person grand jury in Michigan, the court held, may investigate, summon witnesses and issue arrest warrants under state law, but not execute unopposed indictments. Indictments delivered by one-man grand juries in other instances have been relatively uncommon in Michigan, according to local media outlets. In some counties, however, they have been used recently.
“The Flint water crisis is one of this nation's most egregious betrayals of its people by its government,” Justice Richard H. Bernstein wrote in a concurring opinion. “However, because of the amount of harm that was done to Flint residents as a result, these defendants must be prosecuted according to established legal standards.”
The judge, however, noted that there is no right to a grand jury in the state constitution. In response to the judge's questions about whether one-person grand juries are unconstitutional, Ms. Hammoud, the prosecutor, responded: "There is no such thing as an unconstitutional grand jury." Ms. Worthy, who serves as both the elected prosecutor and circuit court clerk for Wayne County (where Detroit is located), also issued a statement defending one-person grand juries and said her team would look at other instances where they might be utilized.
“A one-person grand jury, as opposed to a normal grand jury of 13 to 17 people, is a powerful weapon against the ‘no snitch attitude,'” said Ms. Worthy.
The one-man grand jury has been a valuable tool to protect witnesses who would have avoided coming forward due to the prospect of deadly repercussions for themselves, family members, and friends. This process has allowed us to go through the legal system quickly and inexpensively.”
The residents of Flint, as well as the perpetrators, stated on Tuesday that they were weary and irritated with the legal procedure, although for different reasons.
The series of prosecutions, according to Nick Lyon, a former state health director who was indicted for involuntary manslaughter, is a "nightmare of seven years." The Supreme Court ruled that the charges against him must be dropped, but it did not prevent prosecutors from re-filing them.
“Employees of the state should not be subjected to prosecution or vilification for simply doing their job,” said Mr. Lyon. “It is a travesty to allow politicians — who are acting in their own interests — to scapegoat government workers who are carrying out their duties effectively under difficult conditions.”
According to the complaint, however, Mr. Snyder's lawyers accused Ms. Nessel's team of "a self-interested, vindictive, wasteful and politically motivated prosecution" that was "never about seeking justice for the citizens of Flint."
Mr. Snyder, who has also denied criminal charges, was unable to run for re-election due to term limits in 2018.
Residents of Flint's downtown area were furious about the decision, with many blaming Governor Snyder for the situation.
“They're to blame for it,” Marvin Davenport, who still drinks only bottled water, said. “The responsibility lies with the governor. They receive a get out of jail free card all of a sudden.”
Vivian Williams, who was still trying to come to terms with the news, asked: “Who should we hold accountable for this?”
“Who do we go to with that?” she inquired. “If we can't hold Rick Snyder accountable, who should we point the finger at? It's clear someone dropped the ball.”
Mark Edwards, a water expert who has been working with Flint since the crisis began, said: “I am shocked… This is not the justice that Flint residents have been waiting for.”
The decision by the Michigan Supreme Court means that the 15 people who were indicted in connection with the Flint water crisis will not face trial. This includes former Governor Rick Snyder, who was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty.
This story was published on nytimes.com.
Billy Carson won the Stellar Citizen Award for Education and Philanthropy. Check out this podcast of Billy receiving the award and his acceptance speech!!
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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