Why the sentence handed down to Michigan school shooter Ethan Crumbley matters

Carlos Osorio/Pool/AP

Judge Kwamé Rowe presides over the sentencing hearing for Ethan Crumbley on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Pontiac, Michigan.


More than two years after Michigan’s deadliest school shooting, a judge handed down a historic sentence — and the harshest possible sentence — for the teenage shooter.

Oakland County District Court Judge Kwame Rowe on Friday sentenced 17-year-old Ethan Crumbley to life in prison without parole for the November 2021 shooting that killed four students at Oxford High School. Six other students and a teacher were also injured in the attack.

It’s a punishment that has become both rare and a point of contention because of concerns about sentencing juveniles to die in a cell before reaching full maturity.

Crumbley, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, became the first juvenile to receive an original sentence of life without parole in more than a decade as the US Supreme Court in 2012 banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles and ruled that courts must consider each defendant’s circumstances and maturity before imposing such sentences.

Before handing down his sentence, Rowe told the victims’ families who appeared in court that he knew that “whatever sentence the court imposes will not bring your loved ones back or heal the mental suffering or the lifelong physical scars that some of you have, but I hope the sentence allows you to close a chapter of your life.

The judge rejected last-minute pleas from Crumbley’s lawyer, who said the teenager’s life could be saved. Rowe noted that “the defendant, in his own words,” told the court, “It’s nobody’s fault but his own.”

Rowe, who was appointed to Oakland County’s 6th Circuit Court in 2021 by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, made history by becoming the second black person to serve on the Sixth Circuit Court bench, according to the district’s website.

In September, Roe made headlines after ruling that Crumbley was eligible for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rowe considered the teenager’s behavior both before the mass shooting and during his time in custody, he said.

“It is clear to this court that the defendant had an obsession with violence prior to the shooting,” Rowe said, citing Crumbley’s disturbing writings and documented instances of animal abuse prior to the attack. Rowe said Crumbley’s rehabilitation in prison was unlikely because of his “obsession” with violence.

In a 2012 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court heard arguments urging them not to “give up” on child criminals who are still working, emotionally and developing, as one lawyer called it.

Carlos Osorio/AP

Ethan Crumbley is escorted by a sheriff’s deputy after he was arraigned Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Pontiac, Michigan.

Justice Elena Kagan said the court believed it would be wrong for states to ignore the chance that these now-elderly inmates might one day be rehabilitated.

“The mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality and thus violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” Kagan said.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said: “When the majority of this court rejects this democratic decision (by state legislatures), what the majority is saying is that members of the public must be exposed to the risk of these convicted murderers if they are released from arrest, will kill again.

Because of the ruling, pre-sentence hearings are now being held to determine whether a possible life sentence is appropriate.

Earlier this year, Michigan lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation to ban juveniles from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At least 26 other states have passed laws banning these convictions.

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that life parole sentences for young people should be rare,” they say said Sen. Sylvia Santana. “The Michigan Supreme Court placed the burden on the prosecutor to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a young person is one of the rare people who should receive a life sentence without parole.”

Under the proposed legislation, juvenile offenders would receive a minimum sentence of no less than 10 years and a maximum sentence of no more than 60 years, with possible parole review after 10 years, according to a news release from Michigan Senate Democrats.

CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Nikki Brown, Aditi Sanga, Lauren del Valle, Holly Yang and Bill Mears contributed to this report

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