Prosecutor: Chief medical exec failed to warn public of Legionnaires' outbreak

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Eden Wells

Flint — Michigan's chief medical executive should be bound over for trial because she "failed to prevent the danger" that became Flint's water crisis, a special prosecutor argued Monday.

Dr. Eden Wells, who faces involuntary manslaughter charges among other charges, had a duty and obligation on behalf of Flint residents to press for a public warning on the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area in 2014-15 that killed 12 people and sickened at least 79 others, according to Special Prosecutor Todd Flood.

"The facts are inescapable in this case," Flood said. "We have laid out probable cause that she knew about it, she had a duty ... she failed to act or acted so grossly negligent in her ways that it was reasonably foreseeable that someone was going to get sick, that someone was going to get harmed. That's all I've got to show."

Wells 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' lawyer, Jerold Lax, though, contended that politics is at play in the case and that Wells was a victim and is being "selectively prosecuted" for crimes of "inferences" that haven't been fully defined under the law.

"Dr. Wells is not a criminal," Lax told the judge. "She should be viewed as a hero for the people of Flint. This case should not proceed."

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

The closing arguments before 67th District Court Judge William Crawford II on Monday followed 10 months of testimony at a preliminary hearing in Flint. Crawford often times interrupted both Lax and Flood during their statements to clarify law or to have them reiterate their arguments.

Crawford asked Flood about one of the defense's arguments that binding Wells over could have a "chilling effect" on those making tough decisions in appointed positions. The special prosecutor said everyone must be held accountable.

"You don't get to investigate yourself ... what's a chilling effect? Are you telling me, your honor, that you, me, have nothing we have to worry about in the world if I was a judge or if I was the director of health and human services," Flood said. "If I intentionally lied, if I knew there was a problem, and I let the poison come to the door, your door, in this town. ... The chilling effect is not for those who do criminal acts."

For his part, Lax vigorously defended his client, telling the judge that while the matters the public has been "hearing about are serious to the people of Flint, but I think you can understand that they are very, very serious to Dr. Wells as well."

While Wells is at the end of her preliminary hearing phase, four current and former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulators are going through their preliminary exams after being charged criminally.

Crawford, who hasn't given an exact date when he will issue a ruling, is the second judge to hear a closing argument in the water crisis in recent weeks. He said in court that once the transcripts are done in the coming days, both sides will have seven days to file briefs. And then he will set a court date.

Flood and attorneys for Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon argued last month before another judge who is expected to rule Aug. 20 on whether Lyon goes to trial.

Lyon is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office connected to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak. Flood recently added a misdemeanor charge of "willful neglect" to protect the health of Genesee County residents.

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