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After months, still no resolution for Detroit water protesters' trial

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

After months of highly unusual legal maneuvers, two Detroit protesters still don’t know if a jury will ever decide their case.

They were part of a group, dubbed the “Homrich 9,” arrested for protesting Detroit’s mass water shutoffs in the summer of 2014. They had tried to block trucks that were charged with carrying out the shutoffs.

Two defendants, Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellerman and Marian Kramer, had a two-week trial on misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges in November.

But before it could go to the jury in 36th District Court, city of Detroit lawyers got Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Michael Hathaway to intervene.

Without the defendants’ knowledge, top law department representatives, including corporation counsel Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, asked Hathaway to stay the lower court trial — which he granted.

And after months of proceedings in other courts — including defendants’ rejected request to the Michigan Court of Appeals to allow their original trial to proceed — that’s where things still stand.

The case never went to the district court jury, which is still technically empaneled. And Hathaway still hasn’t ruled on the city’s motion for a mistrial.

During court hearings last week, Hathaway indicated that “Barring another motion on our [defendants’] part, he’ll rule on a mistrial by the end of April,” said Wylie-Kellerman.

Wylie-Kellmerman said the defendants may still appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, who just want their case to go to the jury.

In addition to pre-empting a jury verdict, Wylie-Kellerman says city lawyers and Judge Hathaway have also acted improperly by meeting “behind closed doors, and without us being present, repeatedly.”

“This is actually a pattern with the city and with the judge, to have discussions without defense attorneys or myself being present to argue,” said Wylie-Kellerman, who is representing himself in court.

The defense tried to have Hathaway removed from the case on those grounds. Wayne Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert Colombo admitted that “gross errors” had been made, but ruled they weren’t sufficient to force Hathaway off the case.

The city of Detroit did not respond directly to questions about why it’s taken extraordinary legal measures to intervene in a misdemeanor case.

The city is unhappy that the district court judge allowed the defendants to present a particular type of defense. They claimed their protest was an act of civil disobedience meant to protect vulnerable people from the “imminent harm” caused by water shutoffs.

In a statement, Detroit corporation counsel Hollowell said:

“Tickets were issued by [Detroit Police] to protesters for ignoring repeated requests to cease blockading a private contractors’ trucks that were on their way to carry out shut off instructions. The trial is about enforcing those tickets Defendants have tried to make the trial about free water. The Court of Appeals has ruled that the matter can proceed.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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