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Prosecuting the Flint water case
Kym Worthy never thought in law school that she would wind up a prosecutor. Now she's behind
one of the most prominent criminal cases against public officials in the country.
Worthy, the top prosecutor in Wayne County, Mich., co-leads the Flint water crisis case with Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud.
In January, they rolled out a slate of charges against nine people, including accusing former Gov. Rick Snyder (R) of willful neglect of duty and charging with involuntary manslaughter both Nicolas Lyon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Eden Wells, former Michigan chief medical executive.
The case stems from a 2014 decision that resulted in the city changing its water supply to the Flint River. The corrosive river water, which wasn't adequately treated, caused lead from pipes to leach into the city's drinking water.
The switch has also been linked to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.
And a study reported that following the move, the number of area children with elevated lead levels in their blood approximately doubled. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a doctor whose research drew attention to the issue, has said that all of the city's nearly 9,000 kids under age 6 should be considered exposed to lead, which can damage children's brains and nervous systems.
In a recent interview, Worthy told The Hill that she is overseeing and advising on the case, which Molly Kettler, a deputy chief prosecutor, has worked on full-time for 18 months.
Worthy declined to discuss the prosecution's current strategy or say if plea deals could be involved, saying, "We are still in the initial phases, we are fielding many, many motions ... and just dealing with how this case can be put together."
"We don't try our cases in the court of public opinion, that jeopardizes cases. We also don't want to jeopardize any potential jury pool," she said.
In 2019, Worthy and Hammoud took over the case from previous prosecutors, who they said didn't pursue all the available evidence.
"There was a lot of evidence that had not been uncovered or turned over ... millions and millions of pages of documents," Worthy said. "We had to start from scratch and do it all over again."
Others charged in the probe include Snyder aides Richard Baird and Jarrod Agen, former Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Early Childhood Health section manager Nancy Peeler and former Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft.
All nine have pleaded not guilty.
Snyder appointed the city's emergency financial managers, whose decisions ultimately resulted in the switch. He's denied previous accusations that he was warned about the risks but didn't act until it became public.
In the press conference announcing the other charges, Hammoud said Wells and Lyon were charged for failures including grossly negligent performance of legal duties, and she accused Wells of attempting to prevent distribution of information about Legionnaires' disease in Genesee County, where Flint is located.
Last month, a judge rejected Snyder's attempt to have the charges against him thrown out but later granted a temporary pause for his case. Some of the other defendants face a pre-trial hearing in June.
Worthy gained notoriety in the 1990s for helping to prosecute Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn, two white police officers who were ultimately convicted of second-degree murder for beating a Black man named Malice Green to death.
She called that case "eerily similar" to last month's trial in which former Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin was ultimately convicted of murdering George Floyd.
"We had no video, so we did it the old fashiofned way," Worthy said of the case against Nevers and Budzyn. "We relied on our witnesses. ... It was a very difficult case; it was a very tumultuous time in Detroit."
When she was starting out her legal career, Worthy said she either wanted to work as counsel for a hospital or as a First Amendment attorney.
"My misguided notion of what a prosecutor was is they put Black folks in jail, and that's not what prosecutors do at all," she said.
But when Worthy didn't get a job offer from the office she wanted when she got her law degree from the University of Notre Dame, a friend and mentor told her about opportunities in the county prosecutor's office.
She eventually came to lead the office in 2004, becoming the first Black person and the first woman to hold the position in a county with a population that is about 39 percent Black.
"There were not that many Black women who led large offices. As a matter of fact, Kamala Harris and I came in about the same time, but we were pretty much the only two for large offices," Worthy said, referring to the vice president's former role as the top prosecutor in San Francisco.
Worthy added that when she first took on the top prosecutor role, she had "different views of many of my counterparts across the state of Michigan."
"I felt ... that we should be working just as hard to divert people from the criminal justice system and be very, very careful about who we put in the criminal justice system," she said. "It was really kind of a different way to look at things."
The Flint case isn't Worthy's first experience prosecuting well-known public officials. In 2008, her office brought charges against then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D) after a local newspaper reported that he gave misleading testimony about the firing of a police official and lied about having a sexual relationship with a top aide.
Kilpatrick ultimately resigned from the mayor's office, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges and spent 99 days in jail.
"We follow the same procedure. In fact, we even have more secrecy when we have a public official that's involved," she told The Hill.
Last year at the ballot box, she faced a progressive challenger, Victoria Burton-Harris, who was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but Worthy won reelection by about a 2-1 margin.
When she's not working, Worthy spends time with her three children, her 23-year-old daughter Anastasia and 12-year-old twins Alessandra and Anniston, all of whom are adopted. Worthy said she had another child whom she lost after he was born prematurely.
"I lost a child when I was in my 30s. He died very, very, very, very young," she said.
"I knew at that time ... I would never have another one biologically," she continued, adding that she had wanted to adopt since she was a young child.
Worthy said that all of her children figure skate; Anastasia has represented the U.S. on the national figure skating team.
"We are a figure skating family," she said. "All of them are very involved in activities. It's tough as a single mom doing all of that, but that's where the bulk of my time goes."