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Attorneys debate whether teen who killed 4 should be sentenced to life without parole

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A debate over whether a juvenile who commits a heinous crime should be sentenced to life without parole is at the center of a hearing underway right now in a Michigan courtroom. It centers around a mass shooting that occurred in November of 2021 at Oxford High School in suburban Detroit. That's when a teenager shot and killed four of his classmates and wounded seven other people, including a teacher. The gunman, Ethan Crumbley, was 15 at the time. And shortly after the shooting, he pleaded guilty to terrorism, murder and several other charges. WDET's Quinn Klinefelter has been following the case. Quinn, so OK, it's typical for a hearing to be held before someone who is either found guilty or pleads guilty to a crime is sentenced. This proceeding, called a Miller hearing, is somewhat different. How so?

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Well, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a juvenile cannot automatically be sentenced to life in prison without the chance for parole. That used to happen in some states, including Michigan. But now the high court says that can only happen in rare cases. Michigan does not have the death penalty, and courts here only consider life without parole for a juvenile who committed a homicide. The prosecutors must also prove that the youth is irreparably corrupt and incapable of rehabilitation.

MARTÍNEZ: So is that what the prosecutors are arguing? That the defendant is incapable of rehabilitation?

KLINEFELTER: Yes. In her opening statement at the hearing, Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said Ethan Crumbly fits that description, in part, she says, because he meticulously planned the shooting, methodically carried it out and decided in advance he would not kill himself during the shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREN MCDONALD: And he researched response times to make sure that he surrendered before the police arrived. He stayed alive because he wanted to witness the suffering he created. When the United States Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court talk about the rare case and the defendant, this is the one, Your Honor.

KLINEFELTER: And witnesses described in graphic detail how the shooting occurred and that Crumbley took pleasure from injuring even small animals. They said in prison earlier this year, Crumbley tried to access internet sites showing violent video, allegedly saying he just could not help himself.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, the defense will have its time to counter those arguments. But first, what's it been like in the courtroom?

KLINEFELTER: Emotional, as you might imagine. The prosecution showed pictures and security video of the shooting while parents of some of the victims wept in the courtroom. Crumbley kept his head down the entire time.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the defendant is a juvenile, but during sentencing hearings, defendants can speak. Is that likely to happen here?

KLINEFELTER: Maybe. The defense has said it's possible, but prosecutors wanted to make sure the courtroom heard Crumbley's plans in his own voice. And they played a bit of a video he recorded on his phone the day before the shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ETHAN CRUMBLEY: I understand the consequences. I understand that people will put me in prison for this.

MARTÍNEZ: So if he understood that he would be going to prison, do we know what the defense plans to say?

KLINEFELTER: Yeah, they have experts set to testify that 15-year-old brains are not fully developed and are capable of change. And the defense has been targeting Crumbley's parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, alleging they ignored signs their son was troubled. They didn't get mental health care for him. Instead, they bought him the handgun used in the shooting. And they've been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

MARTÍNEZ: That's WDET's Quinn Klinefelter. Thanks a lot.

KLINEFELTER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY AND BEN LUKAS BOYSEN'S "A GRAIN OF TRUTH") 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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