In the Michigan School Shooting, the Prosecutor Asks, What About the Parents?

PONTIAC, Michigan – It was a knee-jerk judgment, one done quickly, prosecutor Karen D. McDonald said of her decision to charge Ethan Crumbley’s parents with manslaughter in the shooting deaths of four students at Oxford High School in the suburbs of Detroit.

“I just knew instinctively that there was absolutely no way I wasn’t going to process them when I heard all the evidence,” McDonald said in an interview.

Ms. McDonald pointed to what she said is the chilling run-up to the November 30 massacre – how James and Jennifer Crumbley bought their son a 9mm pistol as an advance Christmas present, and then didn’t tell officials. schoolchildren, not even after they called the parents to a meeting because a teacher saw the drawing of a gun of their son, a victim and the plea: “The thoughts do not stop. Please help.”

His decision was made despite the rejection of some members of his staff at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, he said. They cited significant legal hurdles and suggested that it be delayed, fearing defeat in court.

But, McDonald said, he’s not afraid of losing.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “And if the jury decides they are not criminally guilty, I can live with that.” Defense attorneys for the couple have said a more complete picture will emerge, one that absolves the parents.

McDonald said he didn’t set out to break new legal ground – indicting the parents of a minor in a mass shooting is highly unusual – but now he sees the case as potentially part of something bigger, a new front-line effort to promote responsible possession. of weapons. . She calls it “a whole new way of tackling school shootings,” one she hopes can help correct past failures in the system to deter killings.

The Oxford case has catapulted Ms. McDonald, 51, from an obscure prosecutor in her first year on the job to a national figure, one who frequently appears on news programs and advocates for more gun control. strict.

His decision to prosecute the Crumbleys resonates with victims, including Michele Gay, who lost her youngest daughter, Josephine, in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which killed 26 children and adults.

“We have to put it all on the table every time, as painful as it is, and consider all the possibilities that would have mitigated this, stopped this,” said Ms Gay, who founded the organization Safe and Sound Schools after her daughter’s death. in 2012.

Ms. McDonald may well emerge as a political force in Michigan, according to Richard Czuba, a political pollster. in Lansing, Michigan.

“She certainly is a name,” said Mr. Czuba, who said her response to the shootings “strikes a chord in homes with children.”

He envisions Ms. McDonald as a possible successor to Dana Nessel, the state attorney general, when Ms. Nessel’s second term ends in late 2026.

But that’s a life or two in politics, and McDonald must first show that his legal strategies can work, including his unusual decision to charge Ethan Crumbley with not just first-degree murder, but death-causing terrorism as well.

During the interview at the sprawling county government complex in Oakland County, Michigan, the second-largest county in the state, McDonald said he intends to be in court as part of the county prosecution team when the couple go to judgment. Both the Crumbleys, who each face up to 60 years in prison, and their son, who faces life in prison, have pleaded not guilty.

Earlier in the day, at which a funeral was held for the youngest victim, 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana, Ms. McDonald toured the crime scene at Oxford High School.

The scene, McDonald said, revealed “calculated horrifying behavior,” describing how one of the four victims was killed, execution-style, in a bathroom. Seven other people were injured, including a teacher.

The case against the parents will hinge on whether prosecutors can show that the parents were “aware not only in general that their son was in trouble, but also that he would or could do this: shoot that school,” Eve Brensike said. Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “That requires a level of mental guilt that is more difficult for a prosecutor to prove.”

While the parents have previously been charged with manslaughter in connection with the shooting of children, the cases typically involve very young children picking up an unsecured gun from a parent and accidentally killing someone.

Ms. McDonald said she was not aware of such a case against the parents of a mass shooter, even though the weapons used in school shootings often come from family members.

Ms. McDonald, a Democrat, said she has received support for her decision even from Republican gun owners, some of whom have written their letters.

“A lot of gun owners say, ‘Absolutely, if you’re not going to store your gun safely, if you’re not going to be responsible with it, you have to be held accountable,'” he said. “I think this goes far beyond politics, if we are parents.”

Ms. McDonald said that she is not thinking of a higher position, but there has already been some criticism of her television appearances.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard suggested that Ms. McDonald acted prematurely by publishing the charges against the Crumbleys, even before her office was notified, giving the parents time to flee. The FBI and the US Marshals fugitive team were called in and detained the couple early the next morning at a Detroit warehouse.

McDonald, who said he gave the sheriff’s office a proper warning of the charges, said he has settled things with Bouchard, the only Republican to hold a major elective office in Oakland County, where Democrats have dominated in the United States. last years.

In a statement Friday, Bouchard cited a “disconnect” between senior prosecutors and investigators that has been resolved. But Rocky Raczkowski, the Republican president of Oakland County, said that by announcing the charges against the parents before their arrest, McDonald had created confusion.

“It is becoming a soap opera, the risk of parental elopement,” Raczkowski said, “rather than functioning properly like a well-oiled machine. It took away the history of the duel, it cost him money, it took the resources away from the police, but also most importantly, it took away his focus, what went wrong, what went right. “

Originally from Michigan and a former school teacher who became a lawyer and then an assistant district attorney before being chosen as a judge presiding over juvenile cases, Ms. McDonald now runs an office of more than 150 employees, all with black ribbons at the lapel in honor of the dead. and injured.

As a mother, McDonald said she takes gun violence personally. She and her husband of 11 years, Jeffrey Weiss, a lawyer who prefers to stay behind the scenes, have a mixed family of five children. The youngest is a sophomore in college.

His decisions in the Crumbley case suggest a tough approach to law enforcement, but during his campaign for prosecution, he emphasized prosecutor reform, riding the progressive wave after George Floyd’s assassination in Minneapolis. His list of sponsors included Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

After defeating Jessica Cooper, a longtime incumbent Democrat, by a wide margin and taking office in January, McDonald had spent much of the year implementing changes to the office, including adopting alternatives to incarceration and initiating collecting data to detect racial disparities in prosecution.

And although she accused Ethan Crumbley as an adult, she had fueled her campaign to treat “children like children”, holding them “accountable without unnecessary imprisonment.” In office, he reviewed 27 cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole and gave 22 of them the opportunity to be re-convicted, eventually making them eligible for parole.

Perhaps his most publicized venture, until the recent carnage, involved an internal review of a 20-year arson case in which five children died.

Ms. McDonald reopened the case at the behest of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

Imran J. Syed, the clinic’s co-director, said his office had been working to prove the defendant’s innocence for more than a decade, but that McDonald’s predecessor had not been interested in reviewing the circumstances.

Ms. McDonald “uncovered a mountain of evidence of internal misconduct,” Syed said.

Your review found that jailhouse informants who testified against the defendant received significant benefits in return, a fact that was not disclosed to defense attorneys at the time. His office also uncovered a video of a child witness implicating someone else in the crime, evidence that had also not been released.

As a result of the work, Juwan Deering, 50, was released this year after 15 years behind bars. Ms. McDonald is planning a review of other old prosecutions, she said.

Criminal justice officials must abandon the “win at all costs” mentality, he said, adding: “It is difficult, but it is still the right thing to do.”

Giulia Heyward contributed to reporting.

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