Involuntary manslaughter charges could be filed against officials found to be responsible for Flint's water crisis and any related deaths, said a special prosecutor appointed by Michigan's attorney general.
"It's not too far-fetched," Todd Flood, the special investigator, told reporters on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
Manslaughter charges would require proof that officials had demonstrated gross negligence, Flood said. A guilty charged could result in as many as 15 years in prison.
Flood, who was appointed last month by the Attorney General Bill Schuette, said his investigation would be "full and complete."
Jonathan Masur, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, called Flood's willingness to file criminal charges "extraordinary."
"I think that those charges might very well fit this crime," Masur said. "I'm somewhat surprised, but also pleased, that there's a public official who's willing to publicly talk about the idea of bringing criminal charges here."
He said the basis for a manslaughter charge was twofold. A prosecutor had to establish gross negligence — a circumstance where an individual committed a harmful act, whether intentional or not, and failed to mitigate the damage — and that death resulted from the wrongdoing.
He added that it seemed "quite likely" that officials had demonstrated that kind of negligence.
More difficult than proving gross negligence, he said, would be establishing a link between the contaminated water and a specific death.
In 2014, Flint switched from Detroit's water system to the Flint River, which corroded the city's pipes and caused lead to leach into the water supply. Residents complained of discolored, foul-smelling water and anger quickly turned to outrage at local, state, and federal officials, especially the city's emergency managers, who were appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
Brain development, kidney, and neurological function can be impaired by exposure to lead, particularly among young children.
An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, which is caused by a bacterial infection, killed nine people at the time of the contamination — and the switch in the city's water supply is suspected of triggering the outbreak.
Christopher Hastings, a professor at the Cooley Law School at Western Michigan University, said that given the severity of the crisis it was appropriate to take nothing off the table — including criminal charges.
"That said, criminal charges based upon a negligent standard, it's very difficult to get a conviction," he said.
It's difficult to convince a jury to send someone to jail over negligence, he said, especially when more than one person is perceived to be responsible.
Gov. Snyder said the state's new budget would earmark an additional $195 million for Flint, Reuters reported. The state already approved $37 million in Flint funding. Twenty-five million dollars of Snyder's latest allocation would go toward removing lead from the city's pipes.
Karen Weaver, the city's mayor, said swapping out the pipes would cost $55 million.
Hastings said figuring out how best to address the contamination remained uncertain.
"We could find out in two weeks that the water is just fine, and now our big issue is compensating people who have paid water bills for bad water, and compensating people who have lead poisoning," he said. "In which case, it's still a catastrophe, but it's a catastrophe we can wrap our arms around and start resolving. […]. Or we may find that it's huger than anything we've even dreamed of."
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