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Judge: Oxford school shooter is rare juvenile who can get life without parole

Friday morning's hearing was conducted virtually via Zoom.

Life without the possibility of parole will be among the sentencing options for the teenager who killed four students at Oxford High School nearly two years ago, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwamé Rowe said on Friday.

He methodically walked through the school picking and choosing who was going to die,” Rowe said of the shooter who killed four students and injured seven others, including a teacher.

Reading his decision from the bench over Zoom, he noted that Ethan Crumbley meticulously planned his crime and had researched its potential consequences, including the possibility that he would receive a life without parole sentence.

“The decision to conduct the school shooting was not an impulsive or impetuous decision,” Rowe said, noting that he had reviewed a 22-page journal kept by the defendant in which he outlined his plan in detail, including who he hoped his first victim would be: “It has to be a pretty girl with a future.”

While Rowe found the shooter’s age and his family environment to be mitigating factors, he hesitated to accept testimony brought by the defense that Crumbley was a “feral child” who was neglected and abused by his parents.

As the “sole participant” in his crime, Rowe did not weigh the influence others might have had over him, nor did he think the defendant showed an impaired ability to work with the criminal justice system. Rowe reflected on the relatively short period of Crumbley’s incarceration to determine whether he had a potential for rehabilitation. He ultimately decided Crumbley’s “obsession with violence” both before and after his arrest – including looking at graphic videos on a hacked jail tablet – indicated that the defendant had not demonstrated an ability to change his behavior.

Rowe’s decision will allow the harshest possible prison sentence to be a consideration for the 17 year old, who has pleaded guilty to all of the 24 charges against him. His sentencing hearing is set for December 8.

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwamé Rowe began hearing testimony on Thursday to determine whether Oxford school shooter Ethan Crumbley should face life without parole.

The opinion issued by Rowe follows four days of testimony in July, in accordance with the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama that said juveniles may not be sentenced to life without parole without a hearing that considers a set of five factors. The so-called “Miller hearing” for Crumbley included footage of students running for their lives as he began to open fire, as well as harrowing accounts from students and staff who narrowly averted death.

The court considered how Ethan Crumbley planned his shooting spree, the calm demeanor he exuded while firing at fellow students at close range, and the way he seemingly relished watching videos of violence and inflicting harm on small animals – including gruesome accounts of slowly dismembering baby birds. Witnesses were also called to share text communications that revealed his parents’ dismissive response to mental health concerns raised by their son, as well as in-depth analysis of his mental state during his time in custody at the Oakland County Jail.

These issues relate to the five factors that must be considered before a minor can be sentenced to life without parole.

The scope of Crumbley’s Miller hearing over the summer was a point of contention, with attorneys for Crumbley arguing that only the five factors were at issue and county prosecutors insisting that it was necessary to hear testimony on the details of the shooting and its impact.

Amy Hopp, an attorney representing the shooter, moved to dismiss testimony from two students who escaped during the shooting, as well as a teacher, Molly Darnell, who Crumbley shot in the arm.

“The testimony from Ms. Darnell got into things like how she communicated with her family, whether she had any regrets about how she communicated with her family, how she was feeling and things of that nature.” Such information, she argued to Judge Rowe, was “inappropriate” for a Miller hearing.

“The defendant himself expressly wanted to inflict pain and suffering on his victims, and so the testimony is squarely part of this case,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said in response.

Judge Rowe agreed with McDonald and allowed the court to hear highly emotional testimony from students. “I'm able to discern what's relevant to the Miller factors and what's not relevant to the Miller factors,” he said. “I'm the trier of fact.”

And so testimony, including that of students like Keegan Gregory was permitted to continue, often drawing silent sobs from the families of the students who were killed by the defendant.

A freshman at the time of the shooting, Gregory followed the lead of a senior named Justin Shilling and hid in a bathroom. They planned to run when the gunshots sounded further away but didn’t get the chance. The shooter gestured to Shilling to follow him and shot him at point blank range in the back of the head.

“When I saw his body,” Gregory said, his voice breaking, “I realized that if I stayed, I was going to die.”

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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