Lyon, a lifelong public servant who continues to serve as director of Snyder's Department of Health and Human Services, faces two felony charges -- including a single count of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the December 2015 death of Robert Skidmore, 85.
But Thursday's court hearing is also a pivotal moment for Schuette, whose detractors say the charges amount to political grandstanding, and for Snyder, whose own conduct in the water crisis remains the object of intense investigative scrutiny.
Flint District Judge David Goggins will decide whether the 48-year-old Lyon should be bound over for trial in Genesee County Circuit Court after a preliminary exam that could last several weeks.
Schuette contends that Skidmore's heart was weakened by a Legionnaires' disease outbreak some epidemiologists blame on Flint's tainted water, and that Lyon's failure to warn the public about the spike in Legionnaires' cases makes him criminally culpable for Skidmore's death.
It's a complex theory of what-ifs and but-fors that Schuette's critics say is designed to generate headlines, and pressure Lyon to implicate Snyder. Lyons was first briefed on the Legionnaires' outbreak in January 2015; Snyder maintains it was almost a year later when he learned of the outbreak and grasped its possible connection to Flint's water travails.
Snyder has fiercely defended Lyon's integrity and defiantly refused to dismiss him from the cabinet, even as he faces a 15-year-felony charge. But the governor has also faulted Lyon's Department of Health and Human Services for failing to bring the matter to his attention earlier.
Legionnaires' — or tobacco?
To convict Lyon of manslaughter charge, Todd Flood, the special prosecutor Schuette appointed to oversee the Flint investigation, will have to convince a jury that Lyon had a legal duty to disclose the Legionnaires' outbreak long before Skidmore contracted the disease, and that his failure to alert Snyder or the public to the outbreak led inexorably to Skidmore's death.
A death certificate signed by a hospice care physician says Skidmore died of congestive heart failure associated with his smoking habit. He also suffered from diabetes.
Flood has retained Joel Kahn, a self-described holistic cardiologist from Oakland County, who will testify that Skidmore's midsummer bout with Legionnaires' caused his weakened organs to fail six months later. Lyon's attorney's vigorously dispute that assertion.
In a legal brief filed Tuesday, they told Goggins that Flood's evidence "will fail to show that his (Lyon's) actions were the factual or legal cause of Mr. Skidmore's death."
Lyon's attorneys also dispute the prosecution's assertion that their client had a legal duty to disclose the Legionnaires' outbreak, and insist that Lyon's duty is a question of law for Goggins, not a question of fact that should be submitted to jurors.
Seeking justice or headlines?
Experienced defense attorneys say Flood faces an unprecedented challenge -- and perhaps an insurmountable one -- in his burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lyon's actions accelerated the death of an elderly man who suffered from myriad health problems.
Schuette, who confirmed that he is running for governor in a news conference last week, has also come under intense criticism by some of the state's most prominent Republicans, many of whom regard the manslaughter charge against Lyon as a case of political showmanship trumping prosecutorial judgement.
Maura Corrigan, a former state Supreme Court justice first appointed to the bench by former Gov. John Engler; former state Sen. Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw), a cardiologist who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee; and Richard McClellan, an attorney who has advised three Republican governors, have all publicly condemned the decision to prosecute Lyon. So has Democrat Frank Kelley, the state's longest-serving attorney general.
"The law just does not support these charges," Corrigan, who also served as the secretary of Snyder's Department of Human Services before it was merged with the Department of Health, wrote in an op-ed submitted to the Free Press last month. McClellan, who chaired Schuette's transition team after he was elected attorney general in 2010, echoed her sentiments in a Facebook post admonishing Schuette for "criminalizing judgment calls by public servants," McClellan said.
Schuette, who bristles at the suggestion that he overcharged Lyon for political purposes, says the prosecution proves only that he's willing to pursue evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the Flint wherever it leads, even if those in the highest echelons of his own party are implicated.
Schuette's ambition to file criminal charges against Snyder is palpable. He and his investigators remain unconvinced that Lyon waited nearly a year to discuss the Legionnaires' outbreak with the governor, and numerous people close to the case say Lyon has come under tremendous pressure to provide testimony confirming their suspicions.
High stakes, low bar
Schuette would be deeply embarrassed if Judge Goggins rules that the manslaughter case against Lyon is too flimsy to bind over for trial.
Lyon is both the highest-ranking government official charged in the Flint probe and the first to face a manslaughter charge. Special prosecutor Flood has told four other defendants, including the former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, that he intends to seek involuntary manslaughter charges against them as well, but none of the four are expected to be formally charged before December.
A loss in Goggins' courtroom would likely jeopardize those cases as well as Schuette's credibility. But such a setback is unlikely at the preliminary exam stage, where prosecutors bear a much lighter burden of proof.
Prevailing before a jury may be a tall order, but to convince Goggins that Lyon should be bound over for trial, Flood need only show that the state can marshal credible evidence that Lyon violated the law.
Most judges would rather allow a jury to discover a high-profile case's weaknesses than publicly challenge the judgement of the prosecutor who brought it, and there is no reason to believe Goggins is the exception.
So the odds are that Lyon faces a prolonged ordeal, one in which he will come under even more pressure to testify against Snyder and Snyder will face renewed calls for Lyon's dismissal. If Schuette has his way, a governor who is anxious to put the water crisis in his rearview mirror may spend the rest of his term in its shadow.
Schuette's capacity to turn up the heat remains formidable, at least for now: Epidemiologists suggest that as many as 12 deaths may be linked to Genesee County's Legionnaires' outbreak, and prosecutors could try to pin responsibility for some of their deaths on Lyon as well.
It probably offers Lyon little consolation to consider that if they ever make a movie about the Flint tragedy, his own role may prove a minor one.
You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at [email protected]