Judge rules Mich. school shooter eligible for life without parole sentence
“The defendant continues to be obsessed with violence and could not stop his obsession even while incarcerated at the jail,” the judge said
By Kara Berg and Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
DETROIT — The Oxford High School school shooter is eligible to spend the rest of his life in prison, an Oakland County, Michigan, judge ruled Friday.
Ethan Crumbley faced either life without parole or a term of years, which must be a minimum of 25 to 40 years and a maximum of 60 years. He pleaded guilty last year to killing Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17; in November 2021.
Judge Kwame Rowe said while the teen’s chronological age and his family and home environment were mitigating factors, everything else was neutral. He said the teen’s immaturity, the ability to respect the risks and consequences of his actions, the circumstances of the crime and the possibility of rehabilitation are all neutral.
This opens the door to a life without parole sentence, which prosecutors requested after the teen pleaded guilty as charged in November.
The decision was constitutionally required because the shooter is a minor charged as an adult. It’s based on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, which ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles who committed homicides.
Prosecutors had the burden of proof to show during the teen’s Miller hearing that the shooter deserves a life without parole sentence and that the sentence is proportional to the crime, even with mitigating factors like the teen’s age, mental health and childhood.
Rowe said prosecutors met this burden.
“The court … finds that the prosecution has rebutted the presumption by clear and convincing evidence that a sentence to life without parole is a disproportionate sentence,” Rowe said.
Rowe has spent the past month looking over evidence presented during a four-day hearing to decide if it is proportional and fair to sentence Crumbley, who was 15 when he killed four students and injured six others and a teacher at the high school, to life in prison as prosecutors have requested.
Rowe said the chances of Ethan’s rehabilitation were “slim.”
“The defendant continues to be obsessed with violence and could not stop his obsession even while incarcerated at the jail,” Rowe said. “This obsession with violence is in part what caused defendant to commit the underlying offense. If defendant continues to be obsessed with violence in the jail, how can there be a possibility of rehabilitation?”
The teen’s sentencing is set for Dec. 8. At the sentencing, any victims of the crime will have the chance to give a victim impact statement. Rowe noted that because of the terrorism charge, there are more than 2,000 possible victims in the case. The shooter will also be given a chance to speak to Rowe, and his attorneys can ask for leniency in sentencing.
Attorney Wolfgang Mueller, who represents Madisyn Baldwin’s mother Nicole Beausoleil in civil litigation in the attack, said his client is pleased that life without parole is on the table for sentencing.
“They believe and expect that will be the sentence,” Mueller said. "(Rowe) emphasized the deliberate nature of Crumbley’s planning. I expect that will play a huge part in the sentence. It seems that all indications are the sentence warrants life without parole.”
Steve St. Juliana, whose daughter Hana, 14, was murdered in the attack, watched the hearing on Friday and said he was grateful for what should have been an obvious decision.
“In general, when you review all of the factors, it’s very clear,” St. Juliana said. “It’s very clear that he should never leave prison. The whole Miller factor argument of rehabilitation sidesteps the fundamental issue of justice.”
“From our family’s perspective, it’s inconsequential if he ever comes to regret his decision,” St. Juliana said.
Meghan Gregory, whose son Keegan faced the killer and witnessed the execution of Justin Shilling but escaped with his own life, said on Friday she is happy with the judge’s decision.
“I’m thankful. At least it gives us confidence he may never walk out of his jail. Just knowing this, it gives all the victims and their families some relief,” Gregory said.
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald echoed the decision’s meaning for the victims’ families.
“I commend the teachers and students who testified about what happened at Oxford High School that day, and I hope the result today brings the victims, their families, and the Oxford community some comfort,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said in a statement Friday.
Defense attorney Paulette Loftin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rowe’s analysis of the case
Rowe said at 15, the teen had not had much life experience. His brain is in adolescent stages, regardless of his maturity in planning and carrying out the shooting. This makes his chronological age at the time of the shooting a mitigating factor.
But Rowe said the shooter showed maturity that even some adults do not have before the shooting. He had a job, was a part of the bowling team and wanted to make bowling his career. He persuaded his father to buy him two guns and used his own money for the purchases. While at a shooting range, he showed his mother how to handle and fire a gun.
None of this illustrates the hallmark immaturity of a teenager, Rowe said. He cited the teen’s journal entries and the 20-minute video he filmed the night before the shooting, which demonstrated that he thought in depth about his future.
“He knew the possible consequences of his actions because he conducted research about the possible penalties,” Rowe said. “Not only did the defendant plan every action, but he followed through with the plan.”
Rowe acknowledged that the teen may have had a mental illness, but he said it was not severe enough to be a mitigating factor.
While Rowe found the teen’s home life to be a mitigating factor, he said he put “little to moderate weight” on it because of conflicting evidence. The shooter said he had a good childhood and was not abused, Rowe said, but witnesses talked about domestic violence, substance abuse and possible physical abuse by his parents when he was younger.
Rowe said the shooter’s parents did neglect him, but “his general home life, while not ideal, was also not terrible.”
“Despite his parent’s shortcomings, defendant appeared to have a loving and supportive home life. … Nevertheless, the defendant’s parents failed to get him the psychological evaluation he requested,” Rowe said.
What was argued in the Miller hearing
During the Miller hearing, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said the shooter is the rare teen who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. She detailed how he chose his victims — that the first should be a pretty girl with a future so she could suffer like him — and how he shot both Hana and Tate multiple times, how he shot Madisyn at point blank range as she crouched in a fetal position, and how he ordered Justin out of the bathroom stall and killed him on the bathroom floor.
“These acts were carried out in a cold and calculated manner,” McDonald said. “They were intended to have a devastating impact on as many people as he could.”
In a journal police found after the shooting, the teen vowed to cause the biggest shooting in Michigan’s history and wrote about how he wanted to record the shooting so the victim’s parents would have to see it in court.
His attorneys, Paulette Loftin and Amy Hopp, presented evidence that indicated the teen struggled with depression and paranoid thoughts and heard voices in his head, but did not receive the help he said he needed from his parents.
“I used to like (the dark side) and now I don’t want to be evil. I want help but my parents don’t listen to me so I can’t get help,” Ethan wrote in the journal. “I sometimes even regret about doing the shooting. If I don’t though then what is there for me. … I feel like I’m in a time loop of sadness.”
Loftin urged Rowe to give the shooter a term of years in prison, noting that doing so isn’t setting a release date. He will have to prove himself before he is paroled, attend therapy and classes and not engage in assaultive behavior while in prison, she said. He has to show he was rehabilitated.
Loftin said during closing arguments that the shooter felt neglected and alone in the time leading up to the shooting. He didn’t feel safe anywhere and had quit his job and the bowling team. His only friend had left town unexpectedly, his dog died and he was depressed, suicidal and anxious. He wrote on a math worksheet: “The thoughts won’t stop” and “help me,” among other concerning statements.
“Ethan was overlooked. Ethan, in his own way crying out for help, still went unnoticed,” Loftin said.
Prosecutors argued that the shooter doesn’t have a mental illness, which the defense said was disingenuous.
Prosecution witness psychiatrist Dr. Lisa Anacker said the shooter did not meet the statutory definition of being mentally ill.
A defense expert, on the other hand, described the teen as a “feral” child who “lost track of reality.” Colin King, a licensed psychologist who is an expert in traumatic brain injury, testified that the shooter was psychotic and that his parents ignored pleas for help.
Prosecutors called eyewitnesses to testify during the Miller hearing — two students, along with teacher Molly Darnell, who was shot, and Oxford High School Assistant Principal Kristy Gibson-Marshall — who gave vivid and emotional testimony that brought many in the courtroom to tears, including the shooter. He began to cry as Gibson-Marsall testified about her attempts to save Tate, who she had known since he was 3.
The teen’s parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, are also charged in connection with the shooting. Both face four counts of involuntary manslaughter. The case is currently pending in the Michigan Supreme Court after the Crumbleys’ attorneys appealed a district court judge’s decision to have them stand trial in Oakland County Circuit Court.
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