Fieger wants subpoena power to gain access to evidence in Oxford shooting for civil suit

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

High-profile attorney Geoffrey Fieger is seeking subpoena power to gain access to evidence held by investigators in a lawsuit he filed against Oxford Community Schools over a shooting rampage last month that killed four students. 

Fieger is displeased that a protective order is blocking access to "crucial" evidence he said is relevant to the civil lawsuit he's pursuing, even though the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office disclosed some of the very information he's seeking in a public court filing just last week. 

That new information included the revelation that the accused shooter, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, had brought a severed bird head to school in a jar.

The prosecutor, Karen McDonald, also made public in the court filing photos of the explicit drawings Crumbley allegedly made that officials said caused a teacher to pull the teenager from class just hours before the Nov. 30 shooting.

This is exhibit one, left, and exhibit two (before and after drawings on a school worksheet) from a court filing from Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald showing images of the before and after drawings Ethan Crumbley allegedly drew the day of the shooting at Oxford High School. Exhibit two shows that some images and words, such as a hand gun and "My life is useless" have been scratched out and other positive messages have been added, such as "I love my life so much!!!" and "We're all friends here."

The prosecutor's office denied Fieger's requests for the records because they would deprive the accused of the right to a fair trial in an ongoing criminal investigation, Fieger said.

His office sent Freedom of Information Act requests to entities related to the case, but the McDonald's office and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office have replied with "blanket denials," Fieger said. 

He questioned why "bits and pieces of essential information" are now being "arbitrarily" released to the news media and made available for public viewing.

"Plaintiffs are entitled to obtain these records," Fieger wrote in a federal court filing Wednesday. "This information is being released to media outlets without prejudice to the criminal matter. However, this very information is not being produced for pending litigation."

Oakland County Chief Assistant Prosecutor David Williams said in a statement that, under the FOIA statute, the office does not provide discovery to anyone other than the defendant’s lawyer during a criminal prosecution.

"We assume the details that Mr. Fieger refers to is the information contained in pleadings filed with the court in response to a motion filed by the defendants," Williams said. "We are committed to seeking justice for the victims in this case and remain focused on our criminal prosecution."

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Goldsmith has scheduled a Jan. 20 hearing on both Fieger's motion regarding subpoenas and on a defense motion to dismiss former Oxford High School Dean Ryan Moore from the lawsuit.

Moore allegedly received death threats after the lawsuit was filed, but he hadn't worked at the school for over a year, according to his attorney. 

Fieger represents sisters Riley Franz, 17, an Oxford High School senior, and Bella Franz, 14, a freshman in a $100 million federal lawsuit seeking to hold the school district and officials responsible for the shooting massacre that killed four and wounded six others and a teacher. 

Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger points to photographs of James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley during a news conference at his Southfield law office on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. Fieger filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Oxford students and siblings Riley Franz, 17, a senior, and Bella Franz, 14, a freshman. Riley was shot in the neck while next to Bella during the attack, allegedly by Ethan Crumbley, according to police.

The suit, filed Dec. 9, accuses school officials of failing to stop the attack that inflicted physical and psychological injuries on students, claiming they knew Crumbley had posted threatening comments on social media but failed to take action to protect students and downplayed the threat.

A lawyer for the school district, Timothy Mullins, has urged the court to deny Fieger's motion to grant leave to subpoena law enforcement agencies. Mullins said the court has not yet considered the school defendants' arguments that the claims against them are barred by qualified immunity. 

When qualified immunity is raised as a defense, discovery isn't permitted until the immunity question is resolved, Mullins noted. 

But Fieger said the time-sensitive collection of testimony to build his case is needed before memories fade and too much time passes, noting the criminal prosecutions of Crumbley and his parents — who are charged with involuntary manslaughter — are likely to be "lengthy."

"Without the ability to issue subpoenas to non-party defendants the plaintiffs will have no ability to access information that is otherwise available to defendants but not plaintiffs," Fieger wrote.

He gave as an example the nearly 1,800 Oxford students who school officials may have "gleaned important information from" but Fieger is "in the dark" about the names, phone numbers and addresses of key witnesses.

"Allowing plaintiffs the ability to subpoena records, such as witness statements, in no way prejudices the defendants in this matter," Fieger told the court. "Such exchange of information will only aid in the advancement of the case at hand."

Ethan Crumbley faces multiple counts of first-degree murder, terrorism and felony firearm charges. 

Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17, were killed in the shooting. 

Crumbley's parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are due in court on Feb. 8 for preliminary examinations to determine whether they will stand trial on four counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

Staff Writer Robert Snell contributed.