Michigan’s state health director will stand trial for involuntary manslaughter over two deaths that have been linked to Flint’s water crisis, a judge ruled Monday.
State Judge David Goggins called Nick Lyon “corrupt” as he announced his decision to let the case go to trial. Prosecutors say Lyon failed to notify the public for months about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint in 2014 and 2015 that sickened at least 90 people and left 12 dead, according to the Associated Press.
Some experts believe the Legionnaires’ outbreak was caused by improperly treated municipal water in Flint that also exposed residents to high levels of lead and other contaminants. The problems started when the city switched to the Flint River as its water source in April 2014 but failed to properly treat the water.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) shared those concerns with the public for the first time on January 13, 2016. But emails obtained by the New York Times show state and county officials may have suspected a connection between the Legionnaires’ outbreak and the problems with Flint’s water system as early as March 2015.
Lyon faces two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter over the deaths of Richard Skidmore and John Snyder, along with one felony count of misconduct in office, according to the Detroit News. Goggins dismissed a misdemeanor count of willful neglect.
The three felony charges carry a combined maximum of 35 years in prison and $25,000 in fines.
Goggins’ white-and-black striped bow tie stood out against his robe as he read the verdict quietly off a yellow legal pad for two and a half hours Monday. At time, those in the courtroom strained to hear, according to the Detroit News. Other times, both the Detroit Free Press and the Associated Press said, people in the gallery whispered “yes, yes, yes” as the judge spoke.
The preliminary exam has dragged on for 11 months, including 10 months of testimony. The judge had delayed the decision three weeks ago, citing an increased workload and a desire to get it right.
“You heard a lot of things today of things that went wrong. They’re not all Director Lyon’s fault. He is not vicariously liable for all 14,000 employees of the Department of Health and Human Services,” Lyon’s attorney, John Bursch, told the Detroit News after the hearing.
“He is not corrupt, and there’s no evidence of that,” Bursch said.
Bursh promised to appeal the decision to Genesee County Circuit Court, according to the Detroit News. But Goggins said after the hearing that he is not worried about an appeal, citing the overwhelming evidence presented by prosecutors.
Snyder, who is finishing his last term as governor this year, stood by Lyon in a statement released after the ruling.
“Director Lyon has my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS unless convicted of a crime after a full trial by a jury of his peers,” Snyder spokesperson Ari Adler tweeted.
Meanwhile, Flint state Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D), who sat on the city council during the water crisis, called the decision “a meaningful step toward long-awaited justice for the people of Flint and those who lost their lives due to Lyon’s poor leadership.”
Fourteen other state and local officials in Michigan have been charged over Flint’s water crisis and the government’s response, according to the Associated Press. Lyon is the highest-ranking official to stand trial.