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Three years after arrests, charges against Detroit water protesters dismissed

Members of the Homrich Nine before their initial trial in 2015.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Members of the Homrich Nine before their initial trial in 2015.

After nearly three years, a judge has dismissed charges against nine defendants arrested for protesting Detroit’s mass water shutoffs.

The so-called “Homrich Nine” were arrested in June 2014 for attempting to block trucks belonging to Homrich, the contractor the city uses to shut off water service to delinquent customers.

They were charged with disorderly conduct,a criminal misdemeanor. But the case was beset by numerous delays as city of Detroit lawyers, in the words of one defense attorney, “appealed every single ruling the judge made.”

Just as a trial for two of the defendants was about to go to a jury in November 2015, city lawyers asked a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge to step in and take over the case.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Hathaway retained the case for nearly a year, before eventually relinquishing it back to Detroit’s 36th district court.

Proceedings there resumed earlier this year. On Monday, defendants said they received a notice that Judge Ronald Giles had granted their motion to dismiss the charges, agreeing that the defendants had been denied their constitutional right to a speedy trial.

That ruling is “certainly a victory, because the extent of the prosecution was kind of unconscionable,” said Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman, one of the defendants. “On the other hand we’ve been trying virtually since our arraignment to get this case in front of a jury, and that’s the long frustration here.”

Wylie-Kellerman said the Homrich Nine wanted a jury to “rule on the rightness and legality” of their protest, which they frame as civil disobedience. But he said the “real issue is the continued fight for water affordability and to end the water shutoffs” in Detroit.

Julie Hurwitz, an attorney for some of the defendants, said she has “never seen anything like” what she described as the city’s three-year legal effort to “do everything possible to keep these charges hanging over these people’s heads indefinitely until they cave.”

“What they wanted was a guilty plea,” Hurwitz said. “They would have done anything, they would have taken a guilty plea and dismissed all charges immediately, if only they could get a guilty plea on the record. And that was the one absolutely non-negotiable point that these defendants insisted on.”

It’s not immediately clear if city lawyers plans to appeal Judge Giles’ ruling. They have until early July to do so.

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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