DETROIT (AP) — A teenager who killed four fellow students at Michigan’s Oxford High School is eligible for life in prison with no chance for parole, a judge ruled Friday, finding only a “slim” chance for rehabilitation after the 2021 attack.
Judge Kwamé Rowe announced the decision over video conference, weeks after hearing from experts who clashed over Ethan Crumbley’s mental health and witnesses who described the terror of the day in sharp detail.
He will be sentenced in Oakland County court on Dec. 8, a day when survivors and families can tell the judge about how the shooting affected their lives.
First-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence for adults in Michigan. But the shooter was 15 at the time, which now gives the judge options: life in prison or a shorter term — somewhere from 25 years to 40 years at a minimum — and an eventual opportunity for freedom.
At Friday’s hearing, the burden was on prosecutors to show that a life sentence would not be an unfair punishment for a minor. Rowe said they had cleared that hurdle.
“This crime is not the result of impetuosity or recklessness,” Rowe said. “Nor does the crime reflect the hallmarks of youth. Defendant carefully and meticulously planned and carried out the shooting.”
The judge said the teen had downloaded a school map, figured out the likely police response time to a shooting and also researched where Michigan teens are placed in prison.
Prosecutor Karen McDonald, who is seeking a life sentence, said she hopes the judge’s ruling brings “some comfort” to the Oxford community ahead of the final hearing in December.
Crumbley, now 17, and his defense team listened to the decision while in the county jail. The lawyers declined to comment as they walked out.
“The judge still has the option of a term of years,” said Detroit-area defense lawyer Margaret Raben, who is not involved in the case. “Is it a foregone conclusion that he’ll get life without parole? No.”
The shooter pleaded guilty to murder, terrorism and other crimes. The teen and his parents met with school staff on the day of the shooting after a teacher noticed violent drawings. But no one checked his backpack for a gun and he was allowed to stay.
The shooter’s lawyers had argued that he was in a devastating spiral by fall 2021 after being deeply neglected by his parents, who bought a gun and took him to a shooting range to try it. A psychologist, Colin King, described him as a “feral child,” though the judge disagreed.
Defense attorney Paulette Michel Loftin said Crumbley deserves an opportunity for parole some day after his “sick brain” is fixed through counseling and rehabilitation.
Rowe, however, is not convinced so far, saying the possibility for rehabilitation “is slim.”
The shooter “continues to be obsessed with violence and could not stop his obsession even while incarcerated at the jail,” the judge said, noting he accessed violent content on an electronic device even while in custody, violating jail rules.
“As defendant’s own expert stated, the defendant has to be the one who wants to change if he is to be rehabilitated,” Rowe said. “Evidence does not demonstrate to the court that he wants to change.”
There is no dispute that the shooter kept a journal and wrote about his desire to watch students suffer and the likelihood that he would spend his life in prison. He made a video with his phone on the eve of shooting, declaring what he would do the next day.
“I’m sorry the families have to go through this,” he said.
He killed Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Shilling at Oxford High, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) north of Detroit. Six students and a teacher were also wounded.
In the adult wing of the jail, segregated from their son, James and Jennifer Crumbley are charged with involuntary manslaughter. They are accused of making a gun accessible at home and ignoring their son’s mental health.
AP reporter Corey Williams in Pontiac, Mich., contributed to this story.