A judge on Monday ordered Michigan's health director to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter in two deaths linked to Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area, the highest-ranking official to face criminal charges as a result of the city's tainted water scandal.
Nick Lyon is accused of failing to issue a timely alert about the outbreak. District Court Judge David Goggins said deaths likely could have been prevented if the outbreak had been publicly known. He said keeping the public in the dark was "corrupt."
Goggins found probable cause for a trial in Genesee County court, a legal standard that isn't as high as beyond a reasonable doubt. Lyon also faces a charge of misconduct in office.
When the judge announced his decision, a woman in the gallery said, "Yes, yes, yes."
"It's a long way from over," Lyon told The Associated Press. He declined further comment.
Some experts have blamed Legionnaires' on Flint's water, which wasn't properly treated when it was drawn from the Flint River in 2014 and 2015. Legionella bacteria can emerge through misting and cooling systems, triggering a severe form of pneumonia, especially in people with weakened immune systems.
At least 90 cases of Legionnaires' occurred in Genesee County, including 12 deaths. More than half of the people had a common thread: They spent time at McLaren Hospital, which was on the Flint water system.
The outbreak was announced by Gov. Rick Snyder and Lyon in January 2016, although Lyon concedes that he knew that cases were being reported many months earlier. He is director of the Health and Human Services Department.
Nonetheless, he denies wrongdoing. Lyon's attorneys said there was much speculation about the exact cause of Legionnaires' and not enough solid information to share earlier with the public.
The investigation by state Attorney General Bill Schuette's office is part of a larger probe into how Flint's water system became contaminated when the city used Flint River water for 18 months. The water wasn't treated to reduce corrosion. As a result, lead leached from old pipes.
"We're not looking at today as a win or a loss. We're looking at today as the first step and the next step for justice for the moms, dads and kids of Flint," said Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely, who specifically mentioned the families of two men whose deaths the prosecution blames on Lyon — 85-year-old Robert Skidmore and 83-year-old John Snyder.
An additional 14 current or former state and local officials have been charged with crimes, either related to Legionnaires' or lead in the water. Four agreed to misdemeanor plea deals; the other cases are moving slowly.
"Normally we don't see government officials accused of manslaughter based on what they didn't do," said Peter Henning, a professor at Wayne State University law school in Detroit. "That does make it an unusual case, and it will make government officials be much more cautious. Maybe that's the message here."
Defense attorney John Bursch said the judge's decision was "mystifying." Goggins spent more than two hours summarizing evidence from weeks of testimony, but he didn't specifically explain what swayed him to send Lyon to trial.
"We had 20 pages of argument in our legal brief that he didn't address," Bursch said outside court. "He didn't talk about the law at all."
A trial would be many months away after Snyder's term as governor ends on Jan. 1. He said Lyon "has my full faith and confidence" and will remain as Michigan's health director.
A courtroom spectator, Karina Petri, 30, of Milwaukee said sending a senior official to trial is "long overdue."
"He withheld the truth. There's no excuse," said Petri, who wore a "Flint Lives Matter" shirt. "He could have changed hundreds of lives."
David Eggert contributed to this story.