Why Did Michigan Just Drop All Charges in the Flint Water Crisis?

Illustration for article titled Why Did Michigan Just Drop All Charges in the Flint Water Crisis?
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The people of Flint, Michigan, deserve justice. More than five years ago, the city switched its water source and exposed nearly 100,000 residents to lead-tainted drinking water. Yet the state has failed to hold anyone accountable for this event, and now the Department of Attorney General is dropping all charges related to the investigation—including an involuntary manslaughter charge against a top health official.


While it sounds backward, dropping these charges may help the state build a stronger case to actually hold people accountable. At least, that’s what the state is claiming.

The department announced its decision on Thursday, noting in a release that it was made with the intent of launching a new “full and complete investigation.” The old administration under Attorney General Bill Schuette initiated the current investigation, and current Attorney General Dana Nessel took office this year promising to go harder than her predecessor. Apparently, killing the investigation—after the state spent more than $30 million on it—is her team’s strategy.

“I want to remind the people of Flint that justice delayed is not always justice denied and a fearless and dedicated team of career prosecutors and investigators are hard at work to ensure those who harmed you are held accountable,” Nessel said in a statement.

The state investigation, though going on for more than three years, hadn’t gotten that far. The preliminary hearings only ended last summer with some charges dismissed with pleas. Many of the charges included misconduct in office or willful neglect of duty, but the jaw-dropper was the involuntary manslaughter charges. The investigation made headlines in 2017 when the then-prosecutors charged five defendants with involuntary manslaughter charges over the death of Robert Skidmore, one of 12 people who died from Legionnaire’s disease as a consequence of the water switch.

The team came to the decision to end this investigation after evaluating the evidence and concluding that “all available evidence was not pursued,” as Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement. Plus, the new team wasn’t behind the arguments made in the case, and it appears they don’t agree with them.

“[W]e cannot provide the citizens of Flint the investigation they rightly deserve by continuing to build on a flawed foundation,” the statement went on. “Dismissing these cases allows us to move forward according to the non-negotiable requirements of a thorough, methodical, and ethical investigation.”


This is an unusual strategy, but it’s not unheard of, said Peter Hanning, a professor of law at Wayne State University who’s been closely following this case. The prosecutors were smart in dismissing the charges now versus after their cases went to trial because, at that point, they would’ve been unable to retry the case. Double jeopardy, baby. And Hanning can understand where they’re coming from, entering a trial they didn’t start.


“You have a new set of prosecutors on the case, and they may well have taken a look at the charges that were filed and said, ‘We’re not comfortable prosecuting it this way,’” Hanning told Earther. “Prosecutors take a certain ownership interest in their cases, and sometimes it’s hard to prosecute someone else’s case.”

Especially with involuntary manslaughter as a charge. As the old case alleged, none of these officials took action to prevent the bacterial outbreak from occurring, which allowed the bacteria to spread and eventually kill people. However, an argument like that was “going to be a difficult one to win,” Hanning said. He imagines the team may narrow the charges in the next investigation by not including involuntary manslaughter. And that’s if they actually keep to their word about launching a new investigation at all.


“That [charge] was a real attention-grabber because it’s a homicide offense, but proving someone committed a homicide by not acting is hard to do,” Hanning told Earther.

Still, Flint residents are unlikely to be happy just because the attorney general’s team made what some might consider a logical decision, said Hanning. Arthur Busch, a criminal defense lawyer in Michigan who grew up in the city of Flint and is the former prosecutor of Genesee County, where Flint sits, agrees. This will drag the case on longer, and it’s already been more than five years since the mess began.


“This is a strange way to end the case, and it’s certainly not the way the people of Flint want,” Busch told Earther. “The people of Flint should have a say in this case by way of a jury. There are too many people dead, and too many people have been harmed, and they deserve their day in court.”

Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician and researcher who helped expose the crisis, voiced her disappointment on Twitter. “Today’s news that prosecutors dismissed #FlintWaterCrisis criminal cases is painful,” she wrote.


Local kid activist Mari Copeny, better known as Little Miss Flint, called on Twitter for a new investigation that brings charges on “ALL involved.” She didn’t point fingers or name names, but I can take a pretty good guess who she’s talking about there. From the get-go, Flint residents have been calling for charges against former Governor Rick Snyder, who many believe chose to ignore the lead contamination issue.


Perhaps that’ll happen this time around. The team of prosecutors did, after all, take phones from him and his office under search warrant earlier this month. However, successfully charging a former governor would be tough. Not impossible, but certainly not easy.

Earther reached out to the attorney general’s office for comment and will update if we hear back. However, the office was clear that it wouldn’t respond to media requests until it meets with Flint residents later this month. That meeting is slated to happen on June 28th.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.



My personal feelings are that if elected officials through action or inaction kill or injure people they are ostensibly responsible for then they should be held accountable for that.

But I’m sure that once that door is opened, it would mean an awful lot of people in the public service would be now open to being held accountable for their misdeeds.


I’m not seeing a problem with this yet. Sometimes nothing adds an edge to the point like a solidly constructed guillotine.