Life without a replacement for the Oxford High School shooter feels fair

So many things about Oxford break your heart.

My son is now 13, and even though I know a school shooting is statistically unlikely, dropping him off in the morning sometimes feels like a gamble. Letting your child go—to their first sleepover, to the corner store, to eighth grade—is rolling the dice with your heart, hoping this isn’t the moment your luck runs out.

On Friday, two years after the Oxford High School shooting that killed four students, injured six others and a teacher and left a community forever changed, the perpetrator was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

It felt simple.

I don’t always get to read about school shootings. This makes the odds seem too high. When this happens in our community, it is not possible. I had to tell my son about Oxford, the first time I had such a conversation with him, but not the last.

“Will you send me to school tomorrow?” he asked.

Horror and heartbreak in Oxford shooting

So many things about Oxford broke my heart.

These four beautiful children — Madisyn Baldwin, Hannah St. Juliana, Tate Meyer, Justine Schilling — beaming in still photos, loved and cherished, life stretching out before them. I hope, though I know better, that they were not afraid. I hope they didn’t hurt.

Their friends and families who have to live with deep pain that the rest of us can’t imagine.

Their parents who must walk in this world as if their hearts were still in their bodies.

Those who survived, but now live in a world that will never feel so safe, that is much more difficult than it was before.

And — the gunman’s age, just 15 when he planned and launched his deadly attack.

It didn’t seem like a 15-year-old should be capable of such horrific acts. But this gunman meticulously planned his attack, stalking and killing four of his classmates using a gun his careless parents bought him. In his journal, he wrote that he wanted to hear his classmates scream that he hoped to be the deadliest school shooter in America. He writes that he tortured birds, reflects on how he spent his life in prison, and that he wants to record his murders to torment the families of his victims.

These gruesome details would emerge in the months and years following the Oxford murders, each revelation more horrific than the last.

On November 30, 2021, from the vantage point of 46, it was hard not to be startled by his round face, thin teenage hair, youthful skin, and thick glasses.

My son saw it differently.

The day after the attack, as my husband and I talked about what had happened, one of us mentioned the youth of the shooter. My son, then 11 years old, couldn’t help himself.

“What you mean?” he burst out. “He is teenager. He’s 15. That’s it so big, much older than me. I I know what’s wrong. And he is bigger from me.”

He shook his head, bewildered by our inability to see what was so clear to him; the member of our family who goes to school every day, who feels this threat in a way that my husband and I have never felt.

Agency and responsibility

After hours of harrowing victim testimony Friday, Ethan Crumbley, now 17, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

As a culture, we rightfully struggle with whether and when to hold children accountable as adults for criminal acts.

In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. There is ample biological evidence to show that adolescent brains are not fully formed and lack the adult ability to understand the relationship between actions and consequences. The court’s decision does not prohibit life without parole for young offenders, but requires prosecutors to carefully prove that a particular crime is so egregious that life without parole is the only appropriate response. Such hearings were held for the Oxford shooter last fall.

Young criminals here in Michigan once sent to die behind bars have been released, even some who committed murder; these offenders were able to show that they had changed, that they were capable of becoming something more.

It was hard for me not to see the shooter as a child. My son’s response—looking forward, with all the hope and promise stolen from those kids at Oxford—showed me a different perspective.

To declare a child beyond repair, beyond hope or help, is severe. We say it’s hard. That it’s complicated.

My son reminded me that sometimes it isn’t.

Nancy Kaffer is the editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press. Contact: [email protected].

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