CHICAGO — Prosecutors stunned the city of Flint, Mich., on Thursday by dropping all pending charges against officials accused of ruining the community’s water and ignoring signs of a crisis, casting doubt on what some residents had seen as a small but tangible step toward justice.
Fifteen state and local officials, including emergency managers who ran the city and a member of the governor’s cabinet, had been accused by state prosecutors of crimes as serious as involuntary manslaughter. Seven had already taken plea deals. Eight more, including most of the highest-ranking officials, were awaiting trial.
On Thursday, more than three years after the first charges were filed, the Michigan attorney general’s office, which earlier this year passed from Republican to Democratic hands, abruptly dropped the eight remaining cases. Prosecutors left open the possibility of recharging some of those same people, and perhaps others, too.
But in Flint, a city where faith in government was already low and where many residents still refuse to drink the tap water, the news was seen by some as a sign that they had been wronged once again.
“This is not justice,” said Melissa Mays, a Flint resident and advocate for safe drinking water. “It just seems like a political ploy.” She added: “The only thing it tells me is our lives don’t matter.”
Flint’s water crisis, which started in 2014, was a failure of government at all levels. A state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s drinking water source from Detroit’s municipal water system to the Flint River in an effort to save money. Local officials failed to implement corrosion controls, allowing lead to leach from pipes. Health agencies assured residents the water was safe even as people complained that it smelled bad, tasted funny and was discolored.
Those officials were wrong: Children drank water with dangerous quantities of lead. At least 12 people died in a Legionnaires’ outbreak that prosecutors linked to the new water source. Trust in government was ruined.
As officials scrambled to fix the water system and rebuild trust, Michigan’s Republican attorney general, Bill Schuette, appointed a team that began investigating and announcing criminal charges. Still, from the start, some officials and legal observers raised questions about the prosecutors’ approach. And residents asked why the governor at the time, Rick Snyder, also a Republican, had not been charged.
After Mr. Schuette left office in January and was replaced by Dana Nessel, a Democrat, there were signs of a change in course. Todd Flood, the lead prosecutor appointed by Mr. Schuette, was dismissed. New prosecutors assigned by Ms. Nessel expressed concern about evidence collection and took steps to seize Mr. Snyder’s phone. Then, most drastically, Ms. Nessel’s team dropped all charges on Thursday and pledged to investigate more, saying “all evidence was not pursued” by their predecessors.
“Upon assuming responsibility of this case, our team of career prosecutors and investigators had immediate and grave concerns about the investigative approach and legal theories,” said the two lead prosecutors, Fadwa Hammoud and Kym Worthy, in a statement. They said they would meet with Flint residents later this month and noted they were “not precluded from refiling charges against the defendants” or adding new charges and defendants.
Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, said she took the prosecutors at their word and hoped they would follow through with new charges. She said that there was some confusion and frustration in her city about the decision to drop charges, but that she believed it could ultimately be a positive.
“It is frustrating, but I’d rather be frustrated at this end and know that they’re going to do a deep dive into what happened,” Ms. Weaver said in an interview. She added: “I think this way, they may have the evidence they need to be able to hold them accountable and throw away the key.”
Efforts to speak with Mr. Flood, the former lead prosecutor, and Mr. Schuette, the former attorney general, on Thursday were not immediately successful. Mr. Schuette defended his team’s work on Twitter. “We had an experienced, aggressive and hard-driving team,” he wrote. “Everything we did was for the people of Flint.”
Among the officials whose charges were dropped: the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, a state epidemiologist, a former Flint public works director, and emergency managers who had been appointed by Governor Snyder to oversee the city. The decision to drop charges did not affect seven officials who had already accepted deals with prosecutors and entered no-contest pleas, but who had not yet been formally convicted by a judge.
James White, a lawyer for Howard Croft, the former Flint public works director, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and has denied wrongdoing, said the attorney general’s decision validated his concerns about the investigation. Mr. White said his client, who was first charged in 2016, was “carefully, cautiously elated” about the news.
“I give a lot of the credit to the attorney general for having the courage to do this,” Mr. White said.
Juan A. Mateo, a lawyer for Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager who made the decision to switch the water source, said his client had always maintained his innocence.
“This is an unprecedented decision,” Mr. Mateo said of the choice to drop charges. “It is evidence of the real problems that plagued the underlying investigation.”
Ronald F. Wright, a criminal law professor at Wake Forest University, said it was not uncommon for newly elected prosecutors to drop cases brought by their predecessors. But it was far more unusual, he said, for them to suggest that they might file new charges.
“You inherit the file, you start looking through it, and the deeper you get in the file, the more you realize there are possible weak spots in your case,” Mr. Wright said. “I view this as a natural process of a new chief prosecutor becoming familiar with the details of the case.”
Ms. Nessel, the new attorney general, defended her prosecutors’ decision to drop the charges, but she also sought to reassure Flint residents. “I want to remind the people of Flint that justice delayed is not always justice denied,” she said.
That message was a tough sell for some in Flint, where residents said they had waited for years for justice and been disappointed with the results. Monica Galloway, a member of the Flint City Council, called the decision a setback on Thursday and said she hoped new charges would be filed.
“I think anyone that lives in the city of Flint that is affected by this wants justice,” Ms. Galloway said. “And justice can only be done if this is not just redone, but done properly.”