Prosecutor, Lyon's lawyer spar over Flint manslaughter charges

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Nick Lyon, center, talks with his attorney John Bursch, left, during the hearing Wednesday.

Flint — Lawyers for former state health and welfare chief Nick Lyon and Flint's special prosecutor sparred Friday before a judge who has been asked to quash and dismiss the criminal charges sending the charges that include involuntary manslaughter to trial.

Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Farah heard arguments and asked lots of challenging questions related to the defense team's contention — and in turn the prosecution's explanation of the charges — that Lyon should not be held accountable for failing to give public notice about the Flint region's Legionnaires' disease outbreak in 2015.

The arguments, which were nearly an identical replay of what took place in the 67th District courtroom last year, dealt with the crux of the prosecution's case: Did Lyon have a duty to report the Legionella outbreak to the public and should others such as local health officials had more responsibility?

Lyon, the highest-ranked state official to face criminal charges from Flint's lead-contamination water crisis, wants to overturn 67th District Court Judge David Goggins' decision for him to face trial.

Arguments will continue next Wednesday and then Farah is expected to issue a ruling at a later date. The defense has asked for outright dismissal of the charges, not remanding the case back to Goggins.

John Bursch, who represents Lyon and made the arguments, called it a "devastatingly bad day for the special prosecutor."

"The court was clearly engaged on the legal issues, which is what we've been pressing from the beginning," Bursch said. "He spent all of his time bringing fire and brimstone and not talking about the legal questions that the court wanted him to address. What today exposed is that there is absolutely no basis to any of these charges."

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood wasn't available after the hearing. But he told Farah that it was Lyon's "duty" to warn the public about the Legionnaires' outbreak in 2015.

At least 12 people died and another 79 were sickened by the respiratory disease in 2014-2015. Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder didn't give a public warning about the outbreak until a mid-January 2016 press conference in Detroit, although there were press reports of certain Legionnaires' deaths during 2014 and 2015.

Lyon as the state's chief of the health department, Flood said, had a "duty to prevent disease, prolong life and promote the public health" and "willfully neglected or refused to performed that duty" amid the Flint water crisis.

The defense has argued that Lyon ran Michigan's largest department at 14,000 employees and relied on the expertise of department employees, none of whom recommended issuing a public warning.

During the hearing, Bursch argued that the charges related to Legionnaires' are similar to if 36 percent of adults were obese and three people died of cardiac arrest. "He can be charged with manslaughter," Bursch said. "Certainly that's not what the Legislature intended when it drafted" the statute cited.

Flood fought back, emphasizing that "The state created this problem."

"The district court didn't abuse its discretion," Flood said. "There was probable cause in each and every element."

Prosecutors contend Lyon could have saved lives by warning the public of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak. He is charged with the deaths of elderly Flint area residents Richard Skidmore and John Snyder, misconduct in office and a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of the public health. 

Defense lawyers argue the prosecution has failed to make any connection between Lyon and the men's deaths, saying they died from long-term diseases but not Legionnaires'.

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