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Indictments in Flint Water Crisis Are Invalid, Michigan Supreme Court Finds

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The cases against former Gov. Rick Snyder and other top officials were thrown into doubt by the ruling.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder, center, walking out of Genesee County Jail last year after a video arraignment on charges related to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.Credit...Jake May/The Flint Journal, via Associated Press

June 28, 2022

FLINT, Mich. — The Michigan Supreme Court said on Tuesday that former top state officials accused of wrongdoing in the Flint water crisis had been indicted improperly, upending some of the highest-profile prosecutions in recent state history and leaving residents whose tap water turned toxic eight years ago frustrated by a lack of accountability in criminal court.

When they brought charges last year against former Gov. Rick Snyder and others, prosecutors said those officials had failed to protect the safety and health of Flint residents, who were sickened by increased levels of lead and by Legionnaires' disease after the city's water supply was switched to the Flint River in April 2014.

But prosecutors appointed by Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, relied on a judge acting as a one-man grand jury to issue the indictments against Mr. Snyder, a Republican, and eight others, including the state's former health director and the state's former chief medical officer. The Supreme Court, in a 6-0 ruling, said on Tuesday that single-person grand juries, which have long been used in Michigan, could not be deployed in that way. Prosecutors said they planned to continue pursuing the charges using a different legal approach.

Still, for many in Flint, a city that was once a hub of the global auto industry, but that struggled with disinvestment, blight and poverty even before the water crisis, the Supreme Court ruling was seen as yet another betrayal. Some among Flint's 81,000 residents had called for years for charges against Mr. Snyder and others, and had criticized an emergency oversight policy that allowed state officials to take control of the financially challenged city government and change the water source.

"The court system should be ashamed that they let it drag on this long," said Claudia Perkins-Milton, a lifelong Flint resident and an activist on water issues, who said she still drank only bottled water. "People here are so upset. Do you know it's been eight long years — eight? Eight long years that we've been dealing with this atrocity."

Three defendants, not including Mr. Snyder, had challenged the use of the one-man grand jury, but the court's ruling also appeared likely to upset the prosecutions of the other defendants. For defendants who had said from the start that criminal charges were wrong and politically motivated, the ruling on Tuesday marked vindication. Lawyers for Mr. Snyder said they would seek the dismissal of his case.

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Flint residents were sickened by increased levels of lead and by Legionnaires' disease after the city's water supply was switched to the Flint River in April 2014.Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

But Fadwa Hammoud, the state solicitor general who has helped lead the Flint prosecutions, said in a statement hours after the ruling that "these cases are not over" and that "commentary to the contrary is presumptive and rash."

"We are prepared and determined to prove the allegations against the defendants in court and are committed to seeing this process through to its conclusion," Ms. Hammoud said.

Still, Flint's mayor, Sheldon Neeley, who said his residents continued to distrust government, said the decision was a disappointment. He said he hoped prosecutors would continue pursuing the cases.

"Residents of this community feel that they have not received justice, and this is another punch to the level of confidence that people have in government," Mr. Neeley said. He added, "People are angry and they're frustrated."

At least nine people died of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint region from June 2014 through October 2015 after a breakdown at all levels of government. The water crisis, which resulted in elevated lead levels among thousands of people in Flint, has left numerous families distrustful of the water supply, even as city officials insist that it is now safe to drink. Most of the city's lead service lines have been replaced over the past few years, Mr. Neeley said, but a few thousand of the old pipes remain in the ground.

The charges brought by Ms. Nessel's team were not the first time prosecutors had tried to hold officials criminally responsible for what happened in Flint. Before Ms. Nessel took office, her Republican predecessor had helped oversee cases against 15 state and local officials for crimes as serious as involuntary manslaughter. But Ms. Nessel's team had those cases dismissed in 2019 before filing new charges against several of the same officials.

When the first batch of cases was abruptly dismissed in 2019, the two lead prosecutors, Ms. Hammoud and Kym Worthy, said they had "immediate and grave concerns about the investigative approach and legal theories" used by the prior team of prosecutors.

But now, more than six years since the first charges were filed, it remains unclear if anyone will ever stand trial.

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Ariana Hawk, a Flint resident, and her children during a community meeting with prosecutors in 2019.Credit...Jake May/The Flint Journal, via Associated Press

The Supreme Court said on Tuesday that the use of a one-person grand jury to issue indictments unfairly denied the defendants a preliminary examination, where the evidence against them would have been outlined in open court.

State law allows a Michigan judge acting as a one-person grand jury to investigate, subpoena witnesses and issue arrest warrants, the court ruled, but not to hand down unilateral indictments. Local outlets in Michigan said indictments by one-man grand juries in other cases were relatively rare, but have been used recently in some counties.

"The Flint water crisis stands as one of this country's greatest betrayals of citizens by their government," Justice Richard H. Bernstein wrote in a concurring opinion. "Yet the prosecution of these defendants must adhere to proper procedural requirements because of the magnitude of the harm that was done to Flint residents."

Ms. Hammoud, the prosecutor, defended her team's decision to use the procedure, calling one-person grand juries a "well-established prosecutorial tool." Ms. Worthy, who is also the elected prosecutor in the county that includes Detroit, defended one-person grand juries in a separate statement and said her office would be reviewing other cases that might be affected by the ruling.

Ms. Worthy said using a one-person grand jury, as opposed to a typical grand jury of 13 to 17 members, was "a powerful tool to combat the 'no snitch mentality.'"

"The one-man grand jury has been an important way to protect witnesses who would have never come forward for fear of deadly consequences for themselves, family members and friends," Ms. Worthy said. "This process has been a fair, efficient and cost-effective way of getting a case into court for indictment."

Both Flint residents and the defendants said on Tuesday that they had have grown exhausted and frustrated with the legal process, though for different reasons.

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Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud has helped lead the Flint water prosecutions.Credit...Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal, via Associated Press

In a statement, Nick Lyon, a former state health director who was charged with involuntary manslaughter, called the series of prosecutions a "nightmare of seven years." The Supreme Court said the charges against him must be dismissed, though they did not bar prosecutors from refiling them.

"State employees should not be prosecuted or demonized for just doing their job," said Mr. Lyon, who has maintained his innocence. "It is a great injustice to allow politicians — acting in their own interests — to sacrifice government servants who are performing their roles in good faith under difficult circumstances."

Lawyers for Mr. Snyder, who was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty, 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 wrongdoing, was prevented by term limits from running for re-election in 2018.

On the streets of downtown Flint, residents voiced frustration with the decision, many of them singling out Mr. Snyder for blame.

"They're responsible for it. The buck stops with the governor," said Marvin Davenport, who still drinks only bottled water. "All the sudden they get a get out of jail free."

Vivian Williams, who had just heard about the decision, said she was left with a question: "Who do we hold accountable?"

"If we can't hold Rick Snyder accountable, or to a certain extent blame him," she asked, "then who do we take that up with? Who dropped the ball?"

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