PONTIAC, Michigan – It was an instinctive, swift judgment, said prosecutor Karen D. McDonald of her decision to charge Ethan Crumbley’s parents with manslaughter in the shooting deaths of four high school students. of Oxford in the suburbs of Detroit.
âI instinctively knew there was absolutely no way I couldn’t go after them when I heard all the evidence,â McDonald said.
McDonald pointed out what she said was the ice age leading up to the November 30 massacre: how James and Jennifer Crumbley bought their son a 9mm handgun as an early Christmas present, then didn’t. not spoken to school officials even after calling parents to a meeting because a teacher saw a drawing of a gun of their son, a victim, and pleading, “Thoughts don’t stop not. Help me please.”
Her decision came over the reluctance of some of her staff in the Oakland County District Attorney’s Office, she said. They cited significant legal hurdles and suggested she wait, fearing defeat in court.
But, McDonald said, she’s not afraid of losing.
âIt’s the right thing to do,â she said. “And if the jury decides they’re not criminally guilty, I can live with that.” Defense lawyers for the couple said a more complete picture, one that absolves parents, will emerge.
McDonald has said she has no plans to break new ground legally – accusing the parents of a minor in a mass shooting is highly unusual – but now sees the case as potentially part of something. bigger, a new frontline effort to promote responsible gun ownership. . She calls it “a whole new way of approaching school shootings,” which she hopes can help correct past failures of the system to deter murders.
The Oxford case has catapulted McDonald, 51, from an obscure prosecutor in his first year on the job to a national figure, who frequently appears in news programs to advocate for tighter gun control fire.
His decision to sue the Crumbleys echoes the victims, including Michele Gay, who lost his 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 everything on the table every time, painful as it may be, and look at all the possibilities that would have alleviated that, stopped that,” said Gay, who founded the organization Safe and Sound Schools after the death. of his daughter. death in 2012.
McDonald’s may well become a political force in Michigan, according to Richard Czuba, a political pollster in Lansing, Michigan.
“It’s definitely a name,” said Czuba, who said her response to the gunfire “strikes a chord in households with children.”
He envisions McDonald’s as a potential successor to Dana Nessel, the state’s attorney general, when Nessel’s second term ends at the end of 2026.
But it’s a life or two in politics, and McDonald’s must first prove that his legal strategies can work, including his unusual decision to charge Ethan Crumbley with not only first degree murder but also terrorism causing death. .
In an interview with the sprawling Oakland County government complex in Michigan, the state’s second largest county, McDonald said she intends to appear in court in connection with the county prosecution team when the couple go to trial. James and Jennifer Crumbley, who each face a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted, and their son, who faces life in prison, have pleaded not guilty.
Earlier today, during which a funeral was held for the youngest victim, 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana, McDonald visited the crime scene at Oxford High School.
The scene, McDonald said, revealed “calculated horrific behavior,” describing how one of the four victims was killed in a bathroom. Seven other people were injured, including a teacher.
The case against James and Jennifer Crumbley will depend on prosecutors’ ability to prove that the parents were “not only aware that their son was upset, but also aware that he would or could do this – shoot this school,” said Eve Brensike Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “It requires a level of mental guilt which is more difficult for a prosecutor to prove.”
While parents have previously been charged with manslaughter in connection with the shooting of children, cases typically involve very young children who pick up a parent’s unsecured weapon and accidentally kill someone.
McDonald said she was not aware of any such case against the parents of a mass gunman, although the guns used in school shootings often came from family members.
McDonald, a Democrat, said she received support for her decision even from Republican gun owners, some of whom wrote her letters.
âA lot of gun owners say, ‘Absolutely, if you don’t store your gun safely, if you’re not responsible for it, you should be held accountable,â she said. think it goes so much beyond politics if we are parents. “
McDonald said she was not thinking of a higher position, but her TV appearances had already come under criticism.
Michael Bouchard, the Oakland County Sheriff, suggested McDonald’s acted prematurely in publishing the charges against the Crumbleys – even before his office was notified – giving the parents time to get away. The FBI and a team of fugitives from the US Marshals were called in and apprehended the couple early the next morning at a warehouse in Detroit.
McDonald, who said she had given the sheriff’s office sufficient warning of the charges, said she had worked things out with Bouchard, the only Republican to hold a major elected office in Oakland County, where Democrats dominated these 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’s caused confusion.
âIt becomes a soap opera, the risk of parental flight,â Raczkowski said, âinstead of functioning properly like a well-oiled machine. It took away the story of the pain. It cost money. It cost money. took away police resources, but also, more importantly, diverted attention: what was wrong, what was right.
A native of Michigan and a former teacher who went on to become a lawyer and then deputy prosecutor before being elected judge presiding over juvenile cases, McDonald now runs an office of more than 150 employees – all wearing black ribbons in honor of the dead and injured .
As a parent, McDonald said she takes gun violence personally. She and her 11-year husband Jeffrey Weiss, a lawyer who prefers to stay behind the scenes, have a blended family of five children. The youngest is in his second year at university.
McDonald’s rulings in the Crumbley case suggest a strict approach to law enforcement, but during her campaign for the prosecutor she emphasized prosecution reform, riding the progressive wave after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. His list of endorsers included Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
After defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Jessica Cooper on a large scale and taking office in January, McDonald’s had spent much of the year implementing changes in the office, including embracing alternatives. incarceration and starting data collection to detect racial disparities in prosecutions.
And although she accused Ethan Crumbley of being an adult, she had pushed her campaign to treat “children like children”, holding them “accountable without unnecessary jail.” In office, she reviewed 27 cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole and gave 22 of them the chance to be punished, eventually leaving them eligible for parole.
Perhaps his most high-profile endeavor, until the recent carnage, involved an internal review of a 20-year-old arson case in which five children were killed.
McDonald reopened the case at the urging of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
Imran J. Syed, co-director of the clinic, said his office had struggled to prove the accused’s innocence for more than a decade, but McDonald’s predecessor was not interested in examining the circumstances.
McDonald “has uncovered a mountain of evidence of internal misconduct,” said Syed.
His review found that prison informants who testified against the accused received significant benefits in return – a fact that was not disclosed to defense attorneys at the time. His office also uncovered video of a child witness implicating another person in the crime, which was also not disclosed.
As a result of this work, Juwan Deering, 50, was released this year after 15 years behind bars. McDonald said she plans to review other old lawsuits.
Criminal justice officials need to let go of a “win at any cost” mentality, she said, adding: “It’s difficult, but it’s always the right thing to do.”