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Flint water charges tossed because of ‘one-man grand jury,’ court says

Gov. Rick Snyder (R), near photos of damaged pipes from Flint, Mich., attends a meeting between local and federal authorities in 2016. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
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Charges against former Michigan governor Rick Snyder (R) and other government officials linked to the Flint water crisis must be tossed out because of problems with the prosecution that included a “one-man grand jury,” the state’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Last year, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) appointed a group of prosecutors to examine whether crimes were committed when Flint’s water became contaminated with lead and possible Legionella bacteria, which can lead to several health conditions, including Legionnaire’s disease. The prosecution eventually sought an indictment of Snyder on charges of willful neglect of duty, to which he pleaded not guilty.

In its opinion issued Tuesday, the Michigan Supreme Court said a “one-man grand jury” consisting of Genesee-based 7th Circuit Judge David Newblatt “considered the evidence behind closed doors, and then issued indictments against defendants [and] defendants’ cases were assigned to a Genesee Circuit Court judge.”

The court noted that the accused people in one-man grand jury cases are entitled to a preliminary examination before being brought to trial and that the single-person grand jury is not authorized to issue an indictment that would initiate a criminal prosecution.

Laws allowing one-person grand juries were enacted because police agencies are sometimes unable to effectively enforce laws, the justices said, especially when it comes to corruption by government officials.

The unanimous decision sends the case back to the 7th Circuit Court.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth T. Clement recused herself because she had been chief legal counsel for Snyder, who was charged with willful neglect of duty in 2021, according to the Associated Press.

Judge approves over $600 million settlement in Flint water crisis, with children set to benefit

Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said the prosecution of Snyder and others was “not over.”

“We relied upon settled law and the well-established prosecutorial tool of the one-man grand jury, used for decades, to bring forward charges against the nine defendants in the Flint water crisis,” Hammoud said in a news release Tuesday. “We still believe these charges can and will be proven in court.”

Snyder’s legal team said in a statement to The Washington Post that “Nessel’s office egregiously mishandled these cases from the beginning.”

“As the Michigan Supreme Court makes clear, these prosecutions of Governor Snyder and the other defendants were never about seeking justice for the citizens of Flint,” the statement said. “We will be moving immediately to dismiss all criminal charges against Governor Snyder based on today’s unequivocal and scathing Supreme Court ruling.”

In a 2016 State of the State address, Snyder apologized to residents of Flint, telling them all forms of government had failed them and informing them that “the buck stops with me.”

Snyder vowed to fix the water crisis.

Residents had complained about toxic water for more than a year before Snyder publicly acknowledged that the water was contaminated, an Intercept and Detroit Metro Times investigation found.

Flint has replaced over 10,000 lead pipes. Earning back trust is proving harder.

Nick Lyon, a former Department of Health and Human Services director, was among the defendants in Tuesday’s ruling. He said in a statement via his attorney, Chip Chamberlain, that the Michigan Supreme Court ruling marked a “victory for public service” in the state.

“State employees should not be prosecuted or demonized for just doing their job,” Lyon said. “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.”

Former state health department manager Nancy Peeler and former Snyder adviser Richard Baird were indicted as well. Neither immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The Supreme Court ruling also said the 7th Circuit Court made a number of errors that included denying defendants the right to motion for dismissal.

The justices wrote that a preliminary investigation is a critical screening device to ensure that there are grounds for a person to face criminal charges. Not doing so undermines basic notions of fairness, the court wrote.

“The prosecution cannot cut corners — here, by not allowing defendants a preliminary examination as statutorily guaranteed — in order to prosecute defendants more efficiently,” the court said. “The criminal prosecutions provide historical context for this consequential moment in history, and future generations will look to the record as a critical and impartial answer in determining what happened in Flint.”

The city is still dealing with the effects of deadly tainted river water that was sent to homes in a cost-saving measure. A dozen people died of a Legionnaire’s outbreak in 2014, though a 2019 investigation found that the death toll was probably much higher.

Kim Bellware and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.