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Michigan Teenager Sentenced to Life Imprisonment Without Parole for 2021 High School Shooting

By Natasha Bakirci, LLB, LLM | Last updated on

Gun violence in the U.S. is a serious problem. One of the most tragic manifestations of this societal scourge is the increasing number of school shootings taking place across the country. The devastating effects of this are far-reaching — the loss of innocent young lives and potential, indelible trauma on the victims' families and friends, and a pervasive sense of fear and insecurity throughout the community.

2023 saw more than 500 mass shootings in America. At least 80 were school shootings, 51 of which horrifically occurred on K-12 school premises. This is the highest figure since 2008. The U.S. Government has taken note of this threat, recently establishing the Office of Gun Violence Prevention - the first-ever such federal initiative, to tackle this national epidemic.

A Grim Precedent

On December 8, 2023, Judge Kwame Rowe at Michigan's Oakland County Circuit Court sentenced teenager Ethan Crumbley to life imprisonment without parole. He was 15 years old when he killed four fellow students and wounded six other students and a teacher at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021.

In October 2022, the underage gunman pleaded guilty to terrorism causing death, four counts of 1st degree murder, as well as 19 other charges. A charge of terrorism is rare in the context of a school shooting. The Michigan Penal Code defines terrorism as including: "An act that is intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence or affect the conduct of government or a unit of government through intimidation or coercion." The prosecution had contended that Crumbley's protracted campaign of terror, during which he murdered four children and injured many others, but also "victimized" over 1,000 members of the Oxford High School community amounted to terrorism under state law.

Crumbley is the first minor to be given a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, after the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Jackson v Hobbs and Miller v Alabama, which found the imposition of mandatory life sentences without the prospect of parole on juveniles convicted of murder to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (SCOTUS declined to adopt a blanket ban altogether). Michigan's Supreme Court also held in 2022 that life sentences without parole would violate the state's prohibition against "cruel or unusual punishment" in the case of offenders under the age of 18.

Crumbley's sentencing followed a Miller hearing conducted in July 2023, during which prosecutors presented evidence as to why a life sentence without parole was appropriate in the case of this particular minor defendant.

When Rights Go Wrong

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides the "hotly debated" right to keep and bear arms. Unchecked, this can lead to a slew of tragedies, such as in the Crumbley family's case. Ethan's parents had given him the semi-automatic handgun, that he subsequently used in Michigan's worst state shooting to date, as an early Christmas present a few days prior. Given his young age and documented troubled history at school, prosecutors have also charged his father and mother, James and Jennifer Crumbley, with involuntary manslaughter, to which they plead not guilty. Two separate trials have been listed for them in 2024. Experts informed the BBC that this is the first time parents have been charged with manslaughter, carrying a potential 15 years' imprisonment, as a result of their gross negligence and therefore responsibility for the mass shooting at their child's school.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Over 359,000 American students have had an experience of firearm violence at school since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. The safety of our children and the sanctity of places of learning are of the utmost importance. The great American author James Baldwin beautifully wrote "these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become."

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