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Six years after Flint water switch, residents fear justice may never come

Flint water tower

Six years ago this Saturday, Flint officials turned off their water supply from Detroit and allowed Flint River water to start flowing into homes. The rest is infamous: at least 12 died and up to 12,000 children were exposed to contaminated drinking water, while state officials ignored pleas for help.

Flint residents say they’re still awaiting justice, as no one has gone to prison for actions related to the crisis. Some fear the Attorney General’s office is running out of time to bring charges because the statute of limitations for most felonies is six years.

“It’s a very big concern,” said Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of Faith Deliverance Center church in Flint. 

She said there’s been little communication between the Attorney General’s office and community leaders about progress in the case since prosecutors in Dana Nessel’s office dropped charges last summer and vowed to relaunch the investigation.

Nessel, a Democrat, inherited the case from her Republican predecessor, Bill Schuette. 

“There’s still people dying, ending up with cancer. You can do whatever you want to me and nothing happens to you?” Jefferson said. “That tells me that a dog’s life is worth more than a human being’s to those that are in authority in Michigan.”

The Attorney General’s office says that’s not the case. Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who lead the criminal investigation, released a statement last week to “correct the misconception” that six years from the date the water switched to the Flint River — April 25, 2014 — is the deadline to bring criminal charges. 

“Criminal statutes of limitations vary depending on the offense and the date of the alleged criminal act,” the statement from Hammoud and Worthy read. “Though we cannot comment on the specifics of our investigation, we remain on track, and we are delivering on our commitment to the people of Flint.”

The assurance comes despite Worthy telling Flint residents last June that prosecutors had as little as nine months left to file charges because of the statute of limitations. 

The latest statement from Nessel’s office did not elaborate, leading to speculation that prosecutors could:

  • Bring charges before Saturday
  • Issue them at a later time and contend the six-year statute of limitations began after the switch from Detroit to Flint water.
  • Pursue charges at a later time such as manslaughter, which has a 10-year statute of limitations.

Courtney Covington, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, said the office still plans to file charges. 

“We’ve had to be quiet for a reason. We want to make sure nothing jeopardizes the integrity of this investigation,” she told Bridge.

‘It’s disgusting that it’s been six years’

For Flint residents, that likely means waiting even longer in their pursuit of justice.

Schuette first issued charges in April 2016 and eventually filed them against 15 state and local officials. None resulted in prison sentences and about half ended in plea deals by the time Schuette left office in 2018.

Campaigning to succeed him, Nessel pledged that she would ensure all those who are criminally responsible get properly charged. 

Then last summer, her prosecutors shocked Flint residents by dropping charges against the eight remaining officials, including former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells. 

The decision followed an investigation that had taken three years and cost $30 million, but Hammoud and Worthy said they had to start a fresh investigation because Schuette’s team didn’t pursue “all available evidence.”

“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 [former office], particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence,” they said at the time. “After a complete evaluation, our concerns were validated.”

Ten months later, still no charges have been filed. 

“It’s disgusting that it’s been six years and no one has been held accountable for this,” said Nayyirah Shariff, director of advocacy group Flint Rising. 

She said she developed seizures and chronic asthma after drinking the tainted water in 2014 and 2015 — conditions that could become life-threatening due to the respiratory risks of the coronavirus.

“Residents deserve answers,” Shariff said. “If they’re going to expand more people being charged, that would feel better. But if it’s just one or two tokens, I’ll be disappointed where you’re not going to see justice from the court system. Why does it exist if you’re not bringing justice to people?”

Expectation of justice

Because the old charges were dismissed without prejudice, prosecutors could refile the same charges. 

Lyon, Wells and former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley were all charged with involuntary manslaughter. Lyon and Earley also faced misconduct in office charges, while Wells faced obstruction of justice charges.

In Michigan, the statute of limitations for most felonies is six years, except for charges like manslaughter (10 years) and murder (no limit).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Saturday, the anniversary of the switch, is the deadline, said Harold Gurewitz, an attorney representing MDHHS’ Nancy Peeler, one of the former defendants whose charges were dismissed last year.

“It depends on what it is that the prosecutors would claim to be the criminal act,” he said. 

Peeler was charged with conspiracy, willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office on allegations she suppressed data about blood levels in Flint children. 

“Those things occurred in 2015. So, based upon that it would be six years from whatever that is,” Gurewitz said. 

Flint residents balance skepticism, apathy, anger and a loss of hope when they think of the lack of justice so far in the case, said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

But Ananich said he feels confident the Attorney General’s office will produce results. He said he hasn’t received many updates on the investigation and he would “prefer if the public was given a little more understanding of what’s going on,” but that he “felt some comfort” when he saw the office reveal their charges against Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith, including embezzlement, misconduct in office and conducting a criminal enterprise.

“That obviously was a long investigation, very thorough, and then all of a sudden there were results,” Ananich said. “Once I saw that, I felt like, ‘OK, this must be their mode of operation.’”

Ananich and Flint-area Rep. John Cherry, a Democrat, introduced bills last year to extend the statute of limitations on misconduct in office charges from six to 10 years. The bills haven’t gained traction in the Republican-led Legislature. 

“We wanted to give the prosecutors as much time as they needed to make sure that we got justice, but if they feel that’s not something they need to make sure they get that, then that’s OK,” Ananich said. 

“What they were saying is it’s not as if every crime happened on the date of the switch — there were other crimes that went on afterward.”

Still, “there’s an expectation that justice be somewhat timely,” he said.

Covington, of the Attorney General’s office, told Bridge she understands that “there’s a lot of distrust” among Flint residents toward state government. “The people of Flint think that no one is fighting for them,” she said. “But ultimately there is a team of people who is doing everything in their power to … to seek justice for them.”

For Jefferson and Shariff, the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is another reminder of how the state could have — but failed — to respond to Flint’s cries for help.

“Now the world feels what we felt,” Jefferson said. “You don’t have a job. You don’t have your necessities. You don’t get to do what you want to do. We’ve been like that — Saturday it will be six years.”

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