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Hearing to consider whether Oxford school shooter "rare" juvenile unworthy of parole

Nearly two years after a deadly shooting at Oxford High School, a judge will consider whether the teenager responsible for the carnage should spend the rest of his life in prison.
Nearly two years after a deadly shooting at Oxford High School, a judge will consider whether the teenager responsible for the carnage should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Aubrey Greenfield had hoped her transition to college would help her to move on from some of her experiences in high school. But not long after she introduced herself as an Oxford High School grad at her college orientation a couple weeks ago, the condolences and questions began. Even among a class of incoming freshmen in a new academic setting, Greenfield was still marked by the school shooting that rocked her high school nearly two years ago.

“They come up to me and apologize for what we've been through and say they didn't want to ask about it, but ask, like, was I there?”

Greenfield was there when a sophomore named Ethan Crumbley opened fire at the school on November 30, 2021, killing four fellow students, and injuring six others as well as a teacher. Now 17 years old, Crumbley has pleaded guilty to all of the 24 charges against him.

Greenfield doesn’t say his name, but she wants Crumbley to face the most severe punishment possible for his crimes.

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“For me, accountability means getting prison with no chance of parole,” she told Michigan Radio. “The perpetrator took away the lives of four bright young students, and their families are never going to see them again. None of them are ever going to get married or have kids or pursue careers. So I have no mercy when it comes to sentencing.”

Prosecutors for Oakland County have expressed similar views. Regarding a motion seeking life without parole, David Williams, chief assistant prosecutor said in a statement, “[T]here have been no plea bargains, no charge reductions, and no sentence agreements.”

What there will be, however, is a special hearing to determine whether life without parole is an appropriate sentence for someone who commits a crime under the age of 18.

Hearing for Oxford school shooter weighs whether teen should spend life in prison: Live updates

The “Miller factors” 

Through a series of decisions over the past 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has limited life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, and said they should be handed down with caution to “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” In a 2012 decision in the case of the youngest-ever person to be sentenced to life without parole in Alabama — a 14-year-old named Evan Miller — the Court found automatic life without parole sentences for certain crimes to be unconstitutional for people under 18. The Court laid out five considerations that are missed by automatic sentencing. In Michigan and other states that still permit life without parole sentences for people under 18, those factors must be considered to determine when a minor should be sentenced to die in prison.

The factors — which are referred to as the “Miller factors” — include the age of the juvenile defendant, the challenges of his home environment, how his immaturity might have affected his ability to properly represent himself to police officers or accept plea bargains from prosecutors, as well as the potential for rehabilitation.

The factor that will be the most challenged one, according to briefs submitted by Crumbley’s defense attorneys and Oakland County prosecutors, relates to the “the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.”

In a brief submitted to Circuit Court Judge Kwamé Rowe, Crumbley’s attorneys argue that means looking at external influences that factored into the shootings, not the “details” of them. “The facts of the crimes themselves,” defense attorneys wrote in a brief, “no matter how horrific, do not satisfy any of the Miller factors or justify a sentence of life without parole.”

To this end, defense attorneys tried to bar witness testimony about the day of the shooting.

But prosecutors argue that the specifics of the crime are key to determining whether Crumbley should be sentenced to die in prison for what he did. They “admit that the facts surrounding the crimes, alone, are not enough to justify a sentence of life without parole. But the facts and circumstances of the offenses are relevant to determining the proportionality of the sentence” as well as “evaluating the Miller mitigating factors.”

On the list of witnesses scheduled to testify at Crumbley’s Miller hearing are 11 anonymous minors, as well as more than a dozen others. “[A]ll of the prosecution witnesses,” the brief continued, “are witnesses to the shooting.”

With more than 30 witnesses who will testify for either side, the hearing may extend into next week.

If Crumbley is sentenced to life without parole, he will be only the fifth person in Michigan who has gotten that sentence as a minor since the Supreme Court decision on the Miller case. That’s according to Deborah LaBelle, a civil rights attorney who has been involved in many cases involving people who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.

“Society failed him”

Yusef Qualls received an automatic life without parole sentence for a homicide he was involved in as a 16 year old. He spent 27 years behind bars and got out in June.

He watched news of the Oxford school shooting from prison. “I really hate what he did,” Qualls said, referring to Crumbley, but added: “I know that in order for somebody to do something as heinous as what he did, he had to go through some things.”

Michigan is one of 22 states that allow life without parole sentences for minors, and was second only to Pennsylvania in handing down that sentence to young people before the Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional. By the time of the Miller decision in 2012, Michigan had sentenced 366 people to life without parole, more than any other state except Pennsylvania.

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A Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016 required states to reconsider the cases of people they had previously barred from a chance at release. More than a thousand so-called “juvenile lifers” across the country have been resentenced under this mandate, and released from prison.

The Supreme Court has scrutinized life without parole sentences for minors over the last decade, deciding in the 2016 case that young people inherently have “lesser culpability” due to the circumstances that tend to define youth: a sense of immaturity, a relative inability to change one’s circumstances, and a greater susceptibility to peer pressure.

For Qualls, those outside influences — positive and negative — are key. “If society wants to stand on their soapbox and say, well, we should do this to this individual for what he did, then hold yourself accountable also for failing him,” he said. “Because society also failed him.”

“Help me”

Whether Judge Rowe decides to sentence Crumbley to life without parole could be further complicated by the charges against Crumbley’s parents, James and Jennifer. In March, a panel of Michigan Court of Appeals judges ruled that the couple can face criminal charges — a rarity for parents in school shooting cases.

Crumbley’s parents face involuntary manslaughter charges for buying their son a gun and ignoring signs of a troubled mental state. School administrators have also taken heat for sending Crumbley back to class on the day of the shooting — when he drew a picture of a gun along with the words “blood everywhere” and “the thoughts won’t stop, help me.”

According to Deborah LaBelle, the civil rights attorney, those charges could undermine the case against their son.

“I heard the prosecutor argue in the Court of Appeals that if only the parents had seen and listened to him about his cries for help, if only the parents … had taken him home from school and got him counseling, this wouldn't have happened,” she said. “So I don't know how you can turn around and then say he's irreparable and irredeemable."

"I think it's appalling that you take a child, a 15 year old, that has been begging adults for help and you say, ‘We think that you are a monster and you're irredeemable and you should die in prison.’”

LaBelle thinks life without parole should be “abolished” for people under 18.

Qualls, who was sentenced to that fate, agrees. In the weeks since his release from prison, he has relearned what it means to live in the world outside of prison walls. He set up a bank account, got his driver's license, and started working a full-time job.

“I know that change is possible,” he said.

“No chance”

But many of those who were impacted by the Oxford High School shooting say Ethan Crumbley is the kind of “rare” case for which Supreme Court justices reserved life without parole sentences for young people.

Aubrey Greenfield was at the school when Crumbley unleashed a maelstrom of bullets. She was evacuated. She saw blood on the floor. When she went back to the school, she said it felt like “a graveyard.”
“[For] somebody who is so willing to execute fellow peers and fellow students, fellow humans,” she said, “there is no chance of rehabilitation.”

And so she says, there should be no chance of getting out of prison for Ethan Crumbley.

Zoe Touray and Aubrey Greenfield are both survivors of the Oxford shooting. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Zoe, now an Oxford alumna, and Aubrey, a current senior, both became involved in gun reform activism.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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