The decision to charge five top Michigan officials with involuntary manslaughter for a death resulting from the Flint water crisis is virtually unheard of in modern American history, reports ProPublica. Legal experts can’t cite a single case in which government officials were charged in a citizen’s death because they knew about a problem but failed to warn the public. The Michigan criminal case is related to a water contamination-related outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed a dozen people. An involuntary manslaughter conviction in Michigan carries a potential sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine.
But how likely is it that anyone in this case will see any jail time? It’s more common to find cases internationally where government officials were convicted in deaths resulting from disasters, said Denis Binder, a Chapman University law professor. During the past decade, an Italian official was convicted of manslaughter and for downplaying the risks shortly before an earthquake killed more than 300 people, and a mayor in western France was convicted of manslaughter related to flooding that killed 29 residents. Both got suspended sentences. After consulting with experts, news archives and academic reviews, ProPublica found that convictions from disaster-related deaths in the U.S. tend to hinge on a more direct line of responsibility, such as a Staten Island Ferry captain involved in a fatal crash in 2003.