PONTIAC—There is no dispute that Ethan Crumbley killed four fellow students and wounded others at Michigan’s Oxford High School in 2021. The next step: Should the 17-year-old spend the rest of his life in prison for the mass shooting?
Prosecutors will argue in favor of that punishment Thursday during a unique hearing in suburban Detroit. Crumbley’s lawyers will argue that he should be allowed to seek parole some day, claiming that the violence was the catastrophic climax of the teen’s untreated mental illness and “abhorrent family life.”
Oakland County Judge Kwame Rowe has set aside at least two days for the hearing but isn’t expected to make an immediate decision. A life sentence is rare for Michigan teens convicted of first-degree murder since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 said minors must be viewed differently than adults.
Life in prison “will only be imposed on a juvenile who’s believed to be incorrigible, unredeemable and with no reasonable expectation of rehabilitation,” said Margaret Raben, former president of a statewide association of defense attorneys who is not involved in the case.
“When a defendant is a juvenile, you cannot evaluate them from the standards you use for competent adults,” Raben said in an interview. “That can be very, very hard. But anyone who has survived their own adolescence knows that teenagers are not adults.”
Under Michigan law, Crumbley could be given a minimum sentence somewhere from 25 years to 40 years. He would then be eligible for parole, though the parole board can delay a hearing and keep a prisoner in custody.
Crumbley was 15 when he killed four students and wounded seven other people at Oxford High, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Detroit, in November 2021. Earlier that day, he and his parents had met with school staff after a teacher was troubled by drawings that included a bloody body and a gun pointing at the words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
Crumbley was allowed to stay in school, though his backpack was not checked for weapons. Police said he later emerged from a bathroom and started shooting other students.
He pleaded guilty to 24 charges, including first-degree murder, attempted murder and terrorism. Prosecutors insist Crumbley’s decisions can’t be mitigated by his young age or immaturity.
Crumbley “took extensive time to research, plan and prepare for the school shooting, and he expressly considered the results, risks and consequences of his actions—specifically contemplating that he would spend the rest of his life in prison,” assistant prosecutor Marc Keast said in a court filing.
Keast acknowledged that Crumbley’s parents, who were separately charged with involuntary manslaughter in the shooting, were “grossly negligent” for buying their son a gun and ignoring his mental health needs.
“However, even in the face of these facts regarding his family and home environment, a life-without-parole sentence remains proportionate to the offender and the offense,” Keast said.
Crumbley’s lawyers plan to offer testimony from an expert in child brain development and another who has spent time with the teen and performed psychological tests.
Crumbley does not dispute the “devastating impact his actions had on the victims, their families and the community,” but he’s not the rare teen who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, attorney Paulette Michel Loftin said in a court filing.
Roughly 300 people who were serving mandatory life sentences have returned to Michigan’s local courts and received shorter sentences as a result of the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decisions about how to assess US teens convicted of murder, according to the State Appellate Defender Office.
“Judge Rowe has to balance a lot of factors. While community outrage is one of the factors,” Raben said, referring to reaction to the school shooting, “it is not the primary factor.”