Closing arguments in Lyon's Flint manslaughter case set to begin
The closing arguments in the involuntary manslaughter case against state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon start Wednesday, setting the stage for a judge to decide whether a state official goes on trial in the Flint water crisis prosecution.
The preliminary exam has lasted 10 months, involved expert testimony and drawn criticism from Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who has called Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's prosecution against Gov. Rick Snyder's administration. Calley and Schuette are among four candidates vying for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the Aug. 7 primary.
After two days of closing arguments that is expected to culminate on July 25, 67th District Court Judge David Goggins is expected to rule from the bench on whether Lyon will be bound over for trial.
Lyon has been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office connected to the 2014-2015 Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint region that killed at least 12 people and sickened another 79 people. A misdemeanor charge of "willful neglected" to protect the health of Genesee County residents was added last week.
Lyon's case is highly likely to go to trial because the prosecution has to meet a low bar of evidence, only proving there is probable cause an offense was committed, legal experts say. At trial, defendants are still presumed innocent and must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
But Lyon's legal team has mounted an extensive defense, including a medical expert from Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. It also has hired for the closing arguments Schuette's former solicitor general, John Bursch, who has represented the state of Michigan in 11 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and 28 cases before the state Supreme Court.
“John has been a member of Nick’s defense team for some time, and we’re honored and proud to practice with him,” said Chip Chamberlain, one of the lead attorneys for Lyon. “His contribution has been invaluable, and he makes us all better lawyers. His well-earned reputation as an oral advocate and brief writer is without question.”
The case represents what the people of Flint wanted to bring them justice for the Flint lead-contamination water crisis, said Andrea Bitely, Schuette's spokeswoman, referring to cases brought against Lyon and 14 other current and former Flint and state officials.
"Tomorrow marks the day that the attorney general has been looking forward to since we settled our arguments back in February," Bitely said. "We encourage the judge to take all arguments and keep them in mind as we move forward toward the 25th, when he will make his announcement from the bench on whether or not Mr. Lyon is bound over for trial."
Criticism of the Lyon prosecution hasn't fazed the attorney general or the special prosecution team of Todd Flood and others "because we're focused on getting justice for the moms and dads and kids in Flint who drank water that came out of their tap that changed their lives forever," Bitely said.
Gov. Rick Snyder did not warn the public about the the Legionnaires’ outbreak until mid-January 2016 and has defended Lyon.
It is unusual for a judge to set two days, Wednesday and July 25, for closing arguments, Bursch said. Goggins may have follow-up questions for each side to answer before making his ruling, he said. Bursch said he expects each side to get extensive time to make their arguments.
“I think we need to walk through the elements of each one of the charges and simply explain how there’s a lack of evidence that supports each one of those," Bursch told The Detroit News.
Michigan Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, who also has had months' worth of preliminary exam hearing for involuntary manslaughter in the Flint prosecution, is scheduled for closing arguments Aug. 6 in 67th District Court Judge William Crawford's courtroom in Flint, with briefs filed prior to that date.
Four current and former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials are still in the midst of their preliminary exams for various criminal and misdemeanor charges before Judge Jennifer Manley in Flint.