State Chief Medical Exec Wells headed to trial on Flint manslaughter charge

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Defense attorney Steve Tramontin speaks with his client Dr. Eden Wells before a hearing Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, at Genesee District Court in downtown Flint, Mich.

Flint — State Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells will head to trial on involuntary manslaughter and other criminal charges related to the city's water crisis, a judge ruled Friday.

67th District Judge William Crawford reviewed evidence and testimony, hinting early on that he believed Wells knew about the 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area and agreeing with the prosecutor's evidence that she was slow to act and warn other state officials.

The court "found it hard to believe" that Wells would not have known about the outbreak that was prompted by the lead contamination water crisis, Crawford said from the bench.

Genesee District Judge William Crawford reads through a prepared statement during a hearing on Dr. Eden Wells' involvement in the Flint water crisis, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, at Genesee District Court in downtown Flint, Mich. Wells, Michigan's chief medical executive, will stand trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges in a criminal investigation of Flint's water issues, Crawford ruled Friday.

Wells, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter related to the death of John Snyder, who prosecutors say died of Legionnaires' disease in 2015 while the city was drawing its water from the Flint River. 

Wells is also facing charges of lying to a special police agent and obstruction of justice regarding the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint region.

Crawford addressed a courtroom with a smaller audience than the crowd that gathered in August, when 67th District Judge David Goggins ruled that Michigan health and welfare chief Nick Lyon was "corrupt" in his handling of the Flint area Legionnaires' disease outbreak and bound him over for trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges.

Crawford read from extensive notes and wrapped up his ruling in about an hour. By contrast, Goggins spent more than two-and-a-half hours to deliver his verdict.

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood left the courtroom immediately after the ruling and had no comment. It is unclear whether the incoming Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel will retain Flood and his team.

“We are extremely happy with the outcome," said Paul Stablein, an assistant special prosecutor on the case with Flood. "It was the correct outcome under the circumstances based upon the evidence that was presented.

“The judge did a detailed analysis of that. We are happy that he paid attention … and that he came to the right conclusion.”

Wells hugged supporters who gathered in the courtroom, but had no comment.

Steve Tramontin, one of Wells’ attorneys in the case, said “this is just round one” and they will continue to battle the case in circuit court.

“Dr. Wells is innocent of these charges and we intend to continue to fight them,” he said. “And we’re going to move on, move up.”

As for Wells, Tramontin said, “she’s doing fine.”

Wells, like Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, remains on the job despite facing criminal charges. Snyder has said Lyon and Wells “are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” and “continue to be instrumental in Flint’s recovery.”

Schuette has called for the two officials to resign

Dr. Eden Wells, center, puts her jacket on as she leaves the court house alongside her defense attorneys Steve Tramontin, left, and Jerold Lax after a hearing Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, at Genesee District Court in downtown Flint, Mich. Wells, Michigan's chief medical executive, will stand trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges in a criminal investigation of the Flint water crisis, a judge ruled Friday.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver welcomed the ruling.

“I commend the judge for looking at the evidence provided and making a good judicial decision," Weaver said in a statement. "We have been holding our breath as a collective since 2014; we are still waiting for that moment where we can exhale and know that finally, something was done right and our cries were heard.

"Just like the rest of the country, and even more so, we will have our eyes and ears glued to this trial. Flint Lives Matter and we deserve justice.”

The bind-over decision on Wells has been more than a year in the making following 10 months of on-and-off testimony in the case brought by outgoing state Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Special prosecutors argued that Wells "failed to prevent the danger" of the Legionnaires' outbreak, which killed 12 and sickened at least 79 others in the Flint area.

Prosecutors have linked the 2014-2015 outbreak to the Flint lead-contaminated water crisis, while defense attorneys have said many Legionnaires' cases could be traced to the water at a Flint hospital. In addition, the defense has argued that Wells didn't ascend to her state position until May 2015, well into the outbreak.

Wells becomes the third Flint-related defendant to go to criminal trial.

In addition to Lyon, former Flint Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose waived his preliminary exam and headed straight to trial. Ambrose, who ran the day-to-day operations of Flint for the first four months of 2015 after being appointed by Snyder, is charged with committing false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses, as well as a charge of misconduct in office and a misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty.

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