WUOMFM

Still no resolution for Detroit water protesters: "It's not just unusual, it's unlawful."

Aug 15, 2016

Why has a criminal misdemeanor case involving seven Detroit protesters been stalled for nearly nine months?

Those defendants and their lawyers want to know, and in a letter sent to Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Michael Hathaway, they petition him to resolve the case “promptly.”

The defendants, part of the self-proclaimed “Homrich 9,” had briefly blocked contractors’ trucks tasked with shutting off water to Detroit homes.

This was in the summer of 2014, when Detroit was still in bankruptcy court, and ramping up its efforts to crack down on delinquent water accounts. Tens of thousands of households suffered shutoffs as a result, sparking a backlash and calls for a more humane approach to water affordability issues.

Seven of the protesters were charged with disorderly conduct. All refused plea deals, and the city refused to drop the charges.

With intense legal battles going on behind the scenes, five of the defendants never even went to trial. But two did, jointly. Their case was just about to wrap up and begin jury deliberations in 36th District Court when Detroit’s top city lawyers intervened in the case.

Without the defense team’s knowledge, they got Judge Hathaway to stay the lower-court proceedings, while the city sought a mistrial in the case. Prosecutors claimed the case had gone “off the rails” for a number of reasons, including the use of the so-called “necessity defense”—the defendants’ claim that they acted to prevent those at risk of water shutoffs from “imminent harm.”

Despite a series of appeals, procedural moves and attempts at mediation, the case has basically been stalled there since November. During a March hearing, Hathaway indicated he planned to issue a ruling by the end of April, but the court has been silent ever since.

Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman, one of the defendants in the suspended trial, calls it an abuse of the judicial system.

“We believe that what we did was right, and necessary, and an act of conscience that a jury can understand and vote on,” Wylie-Kellerman said, “and they’ve been denied that.”

Julie Hurwitz, an attorney for one of the untried defendants, calls the whole situation “unprecedented.”

“Every criminal defense lawyer I’ve talked to has never heard of anything like this happening in the middle of a criminal trial,” Hurtwitz said. “It’s extremely unusual. It’s not just unusual, it’s unlawful.

“It’s time to move this issue forward in this court, and it’s time for the city of Detroit to stop doing everything it can to obstruct the constitutional rights of these defendants.”

The letter urged Hathaway to “resolve these appeals promptly,” noting that under Michigan court rules, “…a decision should be rendered no later than 35 days after submission."

Detroit corporation counsel Melvin “Butch” Hollowell declined to comment, saying, “We cannot comment on pending litigation.” However, the city has commented on pending court cases in the past, including this one.

Hurwitz said that when she delivered the letter to Hathaway’s courtroom Monday morning, “The first words out of his mouth to me were, ‘So I bet you’re waiting for a decision from me on these motions, right?’ And I said “Yes, Your Honor, this is why I’m delivering a letter to you this morning, and we are eagerly awaiting a ruling from you on both motions.’

“And he said, ‘So am I.’ Now what that means, I cannot fathom."

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.