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Hearing to consider whether Oxford school shooter "rare" juvenile unworthy of parole

A booking photo of the suspect, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley.
A booking photo of the suspect, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley.

It’s been more than a year since a 15-year old killed four people and injured seven others at Oxford High School. He pleaded guilty to all of the 24 charges against him. Prosecutors are pushing for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Since Ethan Crumbley is a minor, he will get a special hearing before the judge can consider that sentence. That hearing starts Thursday.

Aubrey Greenfield graduated from Oxford High School last spring, but she can’t tell people that without getting questions. Like at her college orientation a couple weeks ago. No one mentioned the school shooting when she introduced herself, but afterward

They come up to me and apologize for what we've been through and say they didn't want to ask about it, but ask like, was I there? The whole spiel..." said Greenfield.

Greenfield was there. And so she says she can’t not talk about it. She has followed the trial because knowing what’s going on keeps it all from getting overwhelming. She doesn’t say his name, but she wants Ethan Crumbley to face the most severe punishment possible for his crimes. 

"For me, accountability means getting prison with no chance of parole. The perpetrator took away the lives of four bright young students, and their families are never going to see them again. None of them are ever going to get married or have kids or pursue careers. So I have no mercy when it comes to sentencing." said Greenfield

But the United States Supreme Court has built some mercy into the system for people under the age of 18.

Through a series of decisions, the Court has said that life without parole sentences for juveniles should be handed down only in “rare” cases, and laid out five factors to help decide when. One of those factors in particular is a tension point between Crumbley’s lawyers and prosecutors. It’s this: The circumstances of the crime, his part in it and the role of peer pressure and family issues led to the shooting

Crumbley’s attorneys argue that means looking at his external influences, not the “facts or details” of the crime itself. But prosecutors argue that the specifics of the crime are key to determining whether Crumbley should be sentenced to die in prison for what he did.

"I really hate what he did."

That’s Yusef Qualls. He kept up on news about the school shooting at Oxford while he was in prison. 

"I know that in order for somebody to do something as heinous as what he did, he had to go through some things." said Qualls.

A judge sentenced Qualls to life without parole for a homicide he was involved in as a 16 year old. He spent 27 years behind bars, and got out a couple months ago. The only reason he got out is because the Supreme Court said children sentenced to life without parole should get a second chance. 

Over and over, the Supreme Court has found that young people inherently have “lesser culpability.” That’s what Qualls thinks too, even about Crumbley. 

If society wants to stand on their soapbox and say, well, we should do this to this individual for what he did, then hold yourself accountable also for failing him. Because society also failed him.

Crumbley’s parents face charges for  buying him a gun and ignoring signs of a troubled mental state. School administrators have taken heat for sending Crumbley back to class on the day of the shooting, when he drew a picture of a gun along with the words “blood everywhere” and “help me.”  

Qualls doesn’t believe any child is beyond help. 

"I know that change is possible."

But not in the case of Ethan Crumbley, says Aubrey Greenfield. 

Greenfield was there the day he shot up Oxford High School. She was evacuated. She saw blood on the floor. When she went back to the school, she said it felt like “a graveyard.” 

"Somebody who is so willing to execute fellow peers and fellow students, fellow humans, there is no chance of rehabilitation." said Greenfield.

And so she says, there should be no chance of getting out of prison.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Radio'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. Additionally, Beenish spent two years in Islamabad, Pakistan, working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, covering the country’s first democratic transition of power as well as Pakistan's education system.