Hearing for Oxford school shooter weighs whether teen should spend life in prison: Live updates
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.
On Nov., 30, 2021, Crumbley killed four fellow students – Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Hana St. Juliana, 14, and Justin Shilling, 17 – and injured six others as well as a teacher. He has pleaded guilty to all 24 charges against him, including first-degree murder.
A football player, an artist, a bowler, and an athlete: these are the victims of the Oxford High School shooting16-year-old Tate Myre, 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana, 17-year-old Madisyn Baldwin, and 17-year old Justin Shilling were all killed in the tragedy Tuesday.
Reporter Beenish Ahmed discusses Crumbley hearing
The hearing to determine whether the Oxford High School shooter is eligible for a sentence of life without parole wrapped up its third day of testimony yesterday.
Ethan Crumbley was 15 years old when he shot and killed four students and wounded six other students and a teacher. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that life-without-parole sentences should only be given to minors in rare cases.
Michigan Radio reporter Beenish Ahmed has been covering the hearing and joined Doug Tribou on Morning Edition.
Psychologist describes "dysfunctional family" in sentencing hearing for Oxford High School shooter
Day three of a hearing to help determine a prison sentence for the Oxford High School shooter included testimony from a psychologist who said parental neglect, depression and psychosis contributed to the November 30, 2021 massacre.
Colin King, a witness for the defense, said he spent more than 20 hours speaking with the shooter, administered more than a dozen intellectual and psychological tests, and analyzed texts and videos on the defendant’s phone, as well as surveillance footage from the jail where he is detained and emails sent by staff at his high school in the hours leading up to the shooting.
“Psychologically and socially, he can be considered a feral child,” King told the court, citing Ethan Crumbley’s sense of isolation and abandonment due to his parents’ frequent extended absences from their home and his lack of connection to others. King described a “dysfunctional family” situation where the defendant suffered a “litany of verbal abuse” and “frequent taunts.” King said Crumbley’s parents frequently fought, threatening divorce and suicide.
But Assistant Prosecutor David Williams challenged much of King’s testimony, citing text messages and journal entries that detailed Crumbley’s fascination with inflicting torture and pain, and his calm and methodical planning for the crime that killed four and injured seven.
Considerations for minors who commit murder
At issue in this hearing are the so-called “Miller factors” courts must consider before sentencing a minor to life without the possibility of parole. Those 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.
King said his evaluation of the defendant revealed concerns over the shooter’s family environment, as well as Crumbley’s attempts to get medical attention or mental health support, which he couldn’t do for himself as a child.
King said Crumbley conducted internet searches for depression, ADHD, and OCD. “He couldn't get help from his parents, from the home system, couldn't get help from the school system. He couldn't get to a doctor. He couldn't get to a counselor.”
During the hearing, the defense played body cam footage from the Oakland County Jail after Crumbley was taken into custody. Sheriff’s deputies tied the shooter into restraints, as he moaned repeatedly, “Why didn’t you stop it? God, why didn’t you stop it?” Later that day, he is shown in a hood and held in place by restraints. “It’s in here with me,” he wailed. “Please help me.”
An unsearched backpack
King also shared data regarding the student demographics of Oxford High School, noting a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions for Black students, suggesting that “implicit bias” may have been a factor in preventing school administrators from seeing Crumbley’s behavior as problematic or dangerous ahead of the shooting.
King said during their sessions, Crumbley recalled being called to the office on the morning of the shooting. A school administrator brought the backpack into the office, but didn’t look inside. “What do you have in here, bricks?” King said the administrator remarked.
“All they had to do is unzip the backpack,” Crumbley told King about his meeting with school administrators. Had they done so they would have seen a gun, ammunition, as well as numerous pages scrawled with drawings of guns.
During cross-examination, Williams questioned King at length about the psychologist’s assessment of Crumbley’s mental health, and consistently steered the witness toward the horrific nature and details of the shooting.
The hearing adjourned Tuesday afternoon until Aug. 18. Judge Kwamé Rowe is expected to make a decision after that, followed by a sentencing hearing.
Witnesses for defense stress potential for young offenders' rehabilitation
Defense attorneys called a set of expert witnesses for testimony Friday afternoon in an effort to shift the focus to considerations that could spare their client a life-without-parole sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that courts must “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”
Developmental psychologist Dr. Daniel Keating’s testimony stressed how adolescent brains are underdeveloped, making it difficult to determine whether a teen is “irreparably corrupt” and will continue carrying out violence.
“In my scientific opinion,” Keating told the court, “it is not possible to make that prediction.”
Prosecutors stressed that Keating and another witness, juvenile corrections expert Kenneth Romanowski, had never met nor evaluated the defendant, and were unfamiliar with the facts of the case. The witnesses called by the defense referred to their research and experience when making their assessments.
“I think everybody has the potential to change,” Romanowski testified. “I think Mr. Crumbley would be no exception to that rule. But I think he has to make that choice. He has to be one to say, ‘I want to change.’”
Testimony from Dr. Fariha Qadir, who works as a psychiatrist in the Oakland County Jail, focused more specifically on the mental state of the Oxford shooter since he entered that facility. She initially met with him on a daily basis, and then reduced the frequency to once a week, meeting for 15-minute-long virtual visits.
Dr. Qadir diagnosed Crumbley with major depression – reducing the severity of the diagnosis from moderate to mild after a few months – as well as severe adjustment disorder with anxiety, for which she has prescribed him medication. Prompted by Crumbley’s defense attorney to discuss her patient’s “hallucinations,” Qadir said Crumbley described experiencing “two types of voices.” One was fleeting and external, and did “not interfere much in his daily life.” But Qadir said he also reported experiencing “internal thoughts,” which were more significant and persistent, and “had gotten worse about two weeks before the incident.”
The hearing will resume Tuesday morning. Judge Kwamé Rowe is expected to make a sentencing determination after the hearing concludes, at a later date.
Oxford students' testimony focuses on heroism in the face of horror
Keegan Gregory didn’t know the name of the student who told him to take cover with him in a bathroom stall when gunshots broke out at Oxford High School, but he knew his face. The curly-haired senior – Justin Shilling – had shown Gregory around the school during his orientation just a couple months earlier, laughing and handing out smarties candies.
But on this day – November 30, 2021 – the shooter twice entered the men’s restroom where they were hiding. It was Shilling who told Gregory to squat on the toilet, while he kept his feet behind a wall. The two teenage boys texted their families to tell them that an active shooter was in their school.
Gregory said that Shilling, a few years older than he was at the time, gave him directions. “He told me that when we hear them further away, we’re going to run.”
But they didn’t get the chance. The shooter came back to the restroom and kicked open the door. He told Gregory to stay put and for Shilling to follow him. Then, Crumbley shot Shilling and came back for Gregory. But the shooter dropped his gun, and Gregory took that opportunity to get away. He ran through the halls Shilling had helped him navigate – and had tried to help him escape.
“When I saw his body, I realized that if I stayed, I was going to die.”
"I just kept reassuring her"
Heidi Allen was walking right behind the first person who would be shot that day, and dropped to the ground as others around her were hit. Once the shooter had passed, she heard Phoebe Arthur make a sound and move. She helped the girl to her feet and the two went into a nearby classroom, where Allen secured the door with a barricade device called a Nightlock.
“I just kept reassuring her that she was going to be okay,” Allen recalled in her testimony. She helped Arthur call her parents, and when she sensed the shooting had stopped, she opened the door and called out for help.
By then, law enforcement had entered the school and helped prop Arthur into a swivel chair. Allen turned it so Arthur – who Allen didn’t know before the shooting – wouldn’t have to see the “chaos” in the hallway where students were bleeding from their wounds as first responders tried to offer them help.
“I needed to go help"
The only time that it appears the defendant has shown emotion was during testimony from Oxford High School Assistant Principal Kristy Gibson-Marshall. She knew Crumbley from her previous role as the principal of the elementary school where he transferred to as a third grader, greeting and hugging him along with all of the other students in her charge.
When almost everyone in the building was taking cover and securing doors, Gibson-Marshall moved toward the “cap gun smell” and the sounds she later came to know were gunshots.
“I needed to go help,” she told the court.
Gibson-Marshall followed the shooter through the halls of the high school, and told fellow school administrators when she saw him: “I have eyes on the shooter,” she recalled reporting to school administrators on her walkie-talkie when she saw him. It took her a moment to recognize him.
She asked him what he was doing, and realized who he was when he walked past her. “And I just thought. It couldn't be Ethan, he wouldn't do that.”
She tried to talk to Crumbley, and asked if he was OK. He turned his face away from her and kept walking.
Gibson-Marshall then returned her focus to a young man laying at her feet, turned him over, and knew immediately that it was Tate Myre. Myre attended the elementary school where she was the principal along with his brothers. His mother was involved in the Parent-Teacher Organization and brought Tate along to the school from the time he was three years old.
Marshall fought back tears as she told the court how she checked for a pulse and tried to resuscitate Myre with her breath, watching as his skin turned from blue to gray.
Before first responders arrived, she left his side only briefly: To identify to law enforcement officers the young man kneeling before them in surrender.
“His name’s Ethan,” she told them.
Judge: “I'm the trier of fact.”
Friday’s hearing opened with a request from defense attorneys to dismiss testimony from Molly Darnell, a teacher at Oxford High School who was shot in the arm by Ethan Crumbley.
“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,” defense attorney Amy Hopp told Judge Rowe, arguing that such information was “inappropriate” for a Miller hearing.
In cross examinations, Hopp has focused her line of questions around the five factors the U.S. Supreme Court has said must be considered before a minor can be sentenced to life without parole.
“Both myself and my office are well aware of what a Miller hearing is, as we conduct them frequently,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said in response. “The defendant in this case, and how he committed this crime, and the circumstances around it, are highly relevant.”
“The defendant himself expressly wanted to inflict pain and suffering on his victims,” she added, “and so the testimony is squarely part of this case.”
Judge Rowe agreed. “I'm able to discern what's relevant to the Miller factors and what's not relevant to the Miller factors,” he said.
He denied the motion made by defense to dismiss the testimony of Molly Darnell as well as to bar two additional witnesses – students from Oxford High School. “I'm going to listen to them very closely,” Judge Rowe said. “I'm the trier of fact.”
Prosecution's evidence reveals defendant's attraction to harm
Judge Kwamé Rowe heard from Ethan Crumbley in his own words yesterday – through text messages and journal entries, as well as through video recording he made the night before the shooting. This evidence, assembled by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, revealed the defendant’s drive to cause harm.
Crumbley wrote about his impulse towards causing injury and frightening people in numerous instances. At one point in the days leading up to the shooting, he wrote in his journal: “If I would have never thought of the brilliant idea of shooting at the school, then I probably would have become a serial killer. And I don't know which one is worse.”
In text messages to his closest friend – a young man who moved away abruptly – Crumbley described his interest in causing harm. “Scary thing is, I like being this f—-ed up…. Some people don't, but I like it. I like being like this. Which is f—ed up,” later, he adds, “I love the darkness.”
In another instance, Crumbley considered a different plot for a crime against someone in particular. “It was a plan to kidnap, rape and kill her,” he wrote in his journal, adding that he found out where the person he intended harm against lived. “I made this plan to break into our bedroom at night and kidnap her with an industrial sized garbage bag.”
He laid out specific, troubling details and wrote, “I was so close to executing, executing the plan. But fortunately, my friend [name redacted] stopped me.”
“My name is Ethan Crumbley. Aged 15. And I'm going to be the next school shooter.”
That’s how Crumbley opened a 20 minute long video he recorded of himself on the night before he opened fire on students and staff at Oxford High School. Prosecutors played just the audio from a wide-ranging manifesto of sorts in which the admitted school shooter laid out how he felt his only aspiration – to work in law enforcement or the military – was blocked by his own sense that such roles are pointless.
“Many come back not happy, not satisfied, thinking it's the only thing I want to go into but, will it make me happy? No,” he said. “I realize that that's never gonna work out.”
Instead, Crumbley, who said he had “always been fascinated by guns," came to develop a grim plan to take the lives of fellow students. What emerges through the video – which has not previously been made public – is a sinister view of the world and a sense of hopelessness about the future. “Society is collapsed. Civilization's no more. People don't see it, but we're on the brink of downfall,” he said.
“The world is hell,” he said, and saw his plan for violence as a way to reveal that. “I have the chance to teach the world to become a better place.”
He said he was aware that he would be sent to prison for his actions. Towards the end of the video, Crumbley apologized to his parents for using his life to take the stand he felt was needed – though, in other testimony, his parents showed callous disregard for their son, his mother Jennifer Crumbley texting her husband at one point that “Ethan isn’t going to get out of this, we’ve got to save ourselves.”
As the video played, families of people impacted by the bullets Crumbley fired through the halls of his high school sobbed silently.
Molly Darnell, the teacher who narrowly averted a fatal bullet by turning her body as the teen shot her, took the stand and described barricading in her office.
“I was crouching down. At that point I had sent my husband a text message that just said ‘I love you… active shooter.’”
One attorney asked Darnell about factors the judge must take into account that could give Crumbley a chance at parole. But Darnell said she’s not interested in those considerations.
"Do you know how hard it is to heal from something like this? I avoid everything I can to heal. Learning about what happened is not part of my healing process."
After hearing grisly testimony from Darnell the hearing concluded for the day.
Reina St. Juliana, whose sister Hana was murdered by Crumbley, wore a sullen expression as she listened. Unlike many others in the court who had lost loved ones, she did not appear to cry until the testimony concluded for the day. That’s when St. Juliana approached the jury box where members of the press were seated and asked that “his” name and photo not be shared.
“That’s what he wanted,” she said. “He wanted to be remembered for what he did.”
Here's what happened Thursday morning at the hearing for the Oxford high school shooter
The hearing began with a caution from Judge Rowe. “I understand the sensitive nature of this case,” he told the dozens of observers in the back of his courtroom. “But since this is court, I ask you to please maintain composure,” adding, “we cannot have any outbursts because we need to protect the integrity of these hearings.”
Family members heeded the judges’ request, quietly crying into tissues as prosecutors shared messages concerning Crumbley’s plans to shoot up the school. A few stepped out of the courtroom before a school surveillance video of the shooting was shown. Crumbley, wearing an orange jumpsuit with the words “Prisoner OCJ” and in manacles and chains, kept his gaze lowered for most of the early part of the hearing.
The evidence pointed to a longstanding plan to carry out a school shooting and suggested a cruel interest in causing harm to animals. In a journal entry, Crumbley claimed that he put a decapitated baby bird’s head in a jar in a bathroom at his school – an incident which school administrators had previously not connected to the admitted school shooter.
“It just amuses me how I can cause people to talk about what I did,” Crumbley wrote in a notebook in the days leading up to the school shooting. “And it makes me happy. Once I do the shooting, it will go down as one of the biggest school shooting in American [sic] and Michigan.”
Some of the most troubling evidence reviewed by Timothy Willis, the lieutenant in the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office who oversaw the investigation of the school shooting and was the first to take the stand, reviewed instances of “torture” that Crumbley carried out on baby birds he found in a nest near his home. Later, while in custody at the Oakland County Jail, Crumbley was given a tablet and visited a website that showed videos of people getting killed and animals getting tortured.
The lieutenant, who arrived at the scene not long after the shooting began, also reviewed footage and photos of Crumbley wielding or shooting various firearms, and spoke to the skill the teenage boy had with a pistol – a 9mm that, evidence submitted by the prosecution showed James Crumbley bought for his son a week before the school shooting with money saved by the teenager for that purpose. The teenage Crumbley texted a friend that he had been “begging’ his parents to buy him a 9mm. His mother, Jennifer, shared a photo at a shooting range where her minor son showed her how to load and hold the gun, and referred to the weapon as one that belonged to her child. “Mom & son day testing out his new Xmas present,” the caption read.
No one in the courtroom spoke when surveillance footage was played, showing Crumbley entering a bathroom with a red backpack and then walking out, firing shots at several students, including two he would ultimately murder – Hana St. Juliana and Madisyn Baldwin. He continued to move through the halls, walking in a wide, even gate and firing at the few students who remained in the hallway, including Justin Shilling and Tate Myre.
Once sheriff’s deputies entered the building, Crumbley placed his weapon on a garbage can, dropped to his knees, and raised his hands above his head – surrendering just as he had planned.
“I will continue shooting people until police reach the building,” he had written in his notebook. “I will then surrender to them and plead guilty to life in prison.”
During cross examination Crumbley’s defense attorney Paulette Michel Loftin referred Willis to the contents of the teen’s notebook, the assignements and homework in his backpack where he had drawn more than 50 guns. No one at the school searched that backpack, Willis admitted, and none of the school staff referred Crumbley for a psychological evaluation or called for a welfare check. His parents both refused to take Crumbley home, Willis said, prompted by Michel Loftin’s questions. On the day of the shooting, Jennifer Crumbley texted her son “don’t do it.”
As the chief investigating officer, Willis reviewed hundreds of text messages sent between students at Oxford High School and their parents on the day of the shooting.
“You would agree with me that…the messages that Jennifer and James sent were unlike those of hundreds of other caring parents,” the defense attorney prompted Willis.
“I would agree,” he said.
Michel Loftin seemed to use many of her questions to Willis to get at one of the five factors that must be considered before Crumbley could get a life without parole sentence: his family circumstances and their affect on this actions. She pressed Willis to consider the many moments that his parents or school staff might have intervened to prevent Crumbley from carrying out the shooting he planned – and how the teen wished someone would do so.
At one point, Crumbley wrote in his journal, “My evil has fully taken over in me and I used to like it. But now I don't want to be evil. I want help. But my parents don't listen to me, so I can't get any help.”
Crumbley searched for information about the possible consequences he would face for his actions in the days leading up to his crime, searching for if Michigan had a death penalty (it does not) and the possible worst sentence he could receive as a 15 year old (life without parole).
On one page of the journal, he seemed to accept the possibility of that sentence. “I'm going to spend the rest of my life in prison rotting like a tomato,” he wrote in his journal.
What to know about the Oxford school shooter hearing
In Michigan, that charge carries a mandatory life without parole sentence. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentence can’t be automatically imposed on people under the age of 18, without an additional hearing. That additional hearing – called a Miller hearing – is what will help Judge Rowe determine whether Crumbley will spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.
Defense attorneys have tried to argue, in court documents, that these factors should be considered and not the “details” of the crime itself. “The facts of the crimes themselves, no matter how horrific, do not satisfy any of the Miller factors or justify a sentence of life without parole.”
But Oakland County Prosecutors took issue with that assessment, “[b]ecause the circumstances of the offense is an express Miller factor.” Their motion continued on to say that, “[t]he first and last question this Court must decide is whether a sentence of life without parole is proportionate.”
For that, the prosecution will call more than two dozen witnesses – all of whom were witnesses to the shootings at Oxford High School – and 11 of whom are unnamed minors. The defense named an additional five witnesses. The hearing is expected to continue through Friday and potentially into next week.