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Should the Ethan Crumbly be eligible for life without parole? Hearing concludes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Can a child commit a crime so heinous that they are beyond redemption? That is the question a judge in Michigan must answer about the teen who shot and killed four classmates at Oxford High School in November 2021. The shooter, Ethan Crumbley, wounded seven others, and a hearing concluded today to determine whether he should be sentenced to life without parole. Quinn Klinefelter with member station WDET reports from suburban Detroit. And a note of caution - this story includes graphic descriptions of violence.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Ethan Crumbley was 15 years old when he took a gun from his school backpack and calmly killed four students, shooting most of them at point-blank range. He pleaded guilty to murder and terrorism charges last year. Prosecutors say the killings were so calculated, so vicious, their effect on Oxford so traumatic, it demands the harshest penalty under Michigan law, life without the chance for parole. But defense attorneys countered that recent jail video reveals a different Ethan Crumbley, a teen who thrashed his body while law enforcement officers held him down in a chair and displayed what forensic psychologist Dr. Colin King called signs of remorse and mental illness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ETHAN CRUMBLEY: Why didn't you stop it? Why didn't he stop it? He let it happen.

COLIN KING: What we just witnessed is someone who's saying, God, why didn't you stop it? And that's exactly how psychosis works.

KLINEFELTER: Prosecutors disagreed and called experts who claim Crumbley did not appear to be mentally ill at the time of the shooting. Juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison except in rare circumstances and only after a hearing like this one. That's a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald argued Ethan Crumbley is that rare exception and deserved punishment equal to the carnage he caused.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREN MCDONALD: This is a person who killed four of his classmates solely for the pleasure of killing. And even if the defendant changes, does not mean that he ever gets the right to live free and among us.

KLINEFELTER: Prosecutors quoted Crumbley's texts and journal, where he wrote how he enjoyed torturing young animals and hoped to inflict the same pain on Oxford students. They alleged he researched how quickly police respond to shootings so he could surrender in time to survive and watch the results of the massacre. In court, Crumbley kept his head bowed, but he shed tears when Oxford Assistant Principal Kristy Gibson-Marshall described how she talked to him in the midst of his killing spree. She thought he had found the gun he held at his side. But Crumbley kept walking while she knelt to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Tate Myre, a student Crumbley had shot in the head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTY GIBSON-MARSHALL: Could taste his blood, so much blood, it was all over me. Took me a long time, months - (inaudible) to get the taste of Tate's blood out of my mouth.

KLINEFELTER: Defense attorneys counter that the teen himself had been traumatized through years of neglect from his parents. They claim James and Jennifer Crumbley ignored their son's pleas for mental health care, instead giving him a pill and telling him to, quote, "suck it up." Then they bought him a handgun as a present, the one used in the crime. The parents have since been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Other experts testified that the brains of teenagers like Crumbley are still maturing and that he could be rehabilitated during the decades he must spend in prison, even if the judge rules him eligible for parole. Defense attorney Paulette Lofton says Crumbley can change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULETTE LOFTON: Ethan does not just walk out of those doors once he has served the minimum. We ask that you give Ethan a chance to show this court and to show this community that he will do good things with his time. It is putting the ball in his court.

KLINEFELTER: The judge must still hold a final sentencing hearing where he'll deliver his verdict on whether the juvenile who destroyed so many lives in Oxford should spend the rest of his behind bars. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quinn Klinefelter
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