Michigan Prosecutors Drop Criminal Charges Against Officials Involved in Flint Water Crisis
Michigan prosecutors dropped all criminal charges against government officials involved in the Flint water crisis Thursday, citing concerns about the investigation they had inherited from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) appointed by former Attorney General Bill Schuette, CNN reported.
"We cannot provide the citizens of Flint the investigation they rightly deserve by continuing to build on a flawed foundation," Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy said in a statement. "Dismissing these cases allows us to move forward according to the non-negotiable requirements of a thorough, methodical and ethical investigation."
Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy issued the following statement after new filing in Flint Water prosecution: https://t.co/R52ijUsaz6— Michigan Attorney General (@MIAttyGen) June 13, 2019
The news comes a little more than three years after the first criminal charges were filed and a little more than five years since an emergency manager switched Flint's water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. The highly corrosive water leached lead from the pipes, contaminating the drinking water with unsafe levels of the heavy metal. The new water was also linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed at least 12, The New York Times reported.
For Flint residents, the news of the dropped charges was the latest in a long line of betrayals from government officials. Flint activist Melissa Mays, who founded the advocacy group Water You Fighting For, wrote in a Facebook post that she first heard the news of the dropped charges from a New York Times reporter.
"This is not justice," Mays told The New York Times. "It just seems like a political ploy. The only thing it tells me is our lives don't matter."
Day #1875 in the #FlintWaterCrisis: AG @dananessel drops all criminal charges just before manslaughter trial dates are set and doesn't inform Flint residents. The shock. The horror. Being re-traumatized is NOT what Flint needs... https://t.co/Xw82KwD5nF— Melissa Mays (@FlintGate) June 13, 2019
But the prosecutors, who took over the case after the Michigan attorney general's office passed from Republican to Democratic control earlier this year, argued in their statement that there had been major problems with the original investigation:
Legitimate criminal prosecutions require complete investigations. Upon assuming responsibility of this case, our team of career prosecutors and investigators had immediate and grave concerns about the investigative approach and legal theories embraced by the OSC, particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence. After a complete evaluation, our concerns were validated. Contrary to accepted standards of criminal investigation and prosecution, all the available evidence was not pursued. Instead, the OSC entered into agreements that gave private law firms — representing Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Treasury, and the Executive Office of former Governor Rick Snyder — a role in deciding what information would be turned over to law enforcement.
Hammoud and Worthy said they had already uncovered new information and pinpointed additional people who might be charged. They also said dropping the charges did not prevent them from filing new charges against the original defendants. The pair said they would not answer media inquiries until they spoke directly to Flint residents at a community meeting scheduled for June 28.
Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel supported the prosecutors' decision.
"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," she said in a statement.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued the following statement after learning of the Flint prosecution team's dismissal of all Flint criminal cases without prejudice: pic.twitter.com/hLS75Q9smw— Michigan Attorney General (@MIAttyGen) June 13, 2019
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver also expressed tentative support for the decision.
"It is frustrating, but I'd rather be frustrated at this end and know that they're going to do a deep dive into what happened," Weaver told The New York Times. "I think this way, they may have the evidence they need to be able to hold them accountable and throw away the key."
Schuette, meanwhile, took to Twitter to defend his team's investigation. He noted that the OSC had brought 59 charges against 15 people and won five convictions.
"We had an experienced, aggressive and hard-driving team. Everything we did was for the people of Flint," he wrote.
We had an experienced, aggressive and hard-driving team. Everything we did was for the people of Flint.— Bill Schuette (@SchuetteOnDuty) June 13, 2019
The news means that Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells will no longer face trial for charges including involuntary manslaughter after they allegedly failed to warn residents of the Legionnaires' outbreak in a timely manner, The Detroit News reported. Lyon was the highest-ranking official to be charged in the initial investigation. Charges against six other officials were also dropped Thursday. Seven of the original 15 charged had previously agreed to plea deals.
Chip Chamberlain, one of Lyon's attorneys, told The Detroit News that his client "feels fantastic and grateful and vindicated."
However, Lyon and the others could face new charges.
"If charges are dismissed, usually prosecutors have six months or so to refile charges and it won't affect the statute of limitations," Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor Peter Henning told The Detroit News.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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