Finley: A child killer, perhaps. But still a child
Ethan Crumbley, as charged, is a stone-cold killer who ended the lives of four promising students at Oxford High School last week. Prosecutors say he is seen on video moving like a methodical assassin through the building, firing his pistol without emotion into the bodies of his terrified classmates.
He is despicable. He is evil.
He's also something else: a child.
Ethan is a 15-year-old with an awful teenage haircut and peach fuzz on his face. He can't yet drive, drink, vote or make legal decisions for himself. I'd be surprised if he's had his first kiss.
And yet he stands charged as an adult with multiple counts of murder and other crimes that, on conviction, will send him to an adult prison for the rest of his life.
His acts were heinous and indefensible. He should be punished for them. But we should also remember they were committed by a child, a deeply troubled child still a long ways from maturity, whose brain is a jumbled mess.
Even the best and brightest of 15-year-olds are capable of shocking with their stupidity.
"We don't change the fact that they're children based on the acts they do," says Deborah LaBelle, a Michigan civil rights attorney who heads the Juvenile Justice Project of the ACLU. "What you do doesn't change who you are. I'm troubled by the fact that you try to convert the status of a 15-year-old child based on what he’s done."
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald likely felt she had little choice in charging Ethan as an adult, considering the enormity of his crimes, the community outrage and the devastation he brought to the families of the victims.
But she's also charged his parents with involuntary manslaughter for not averting his terrible deeds, a tacit acknowledgement the teenager is not fully or solely responsible for his actions.
"Karen McDonald is asking some of the questions," LaBelle says. "Where were we? Where were the parents? Where was the school?
"If you’re going to charge the parents, how do you not recognize that he’s a child?"
Michigan codified the distinction between teenaged criminals and more fully developed adults this year when it raised the age at which teens are automatically charged as adults to 18 from 17. It also extended to age 25 the opportunity of reformed youthful offenders to have their records expunged. The changes confirmed the clear difference in culpability between children and adults.
McDonald has a better pathway under Michigan law, although using it might be political suicide for an elected prosecutor. It's a blended sentence option that would allow Ethan to be prosecuted in the juvenile system and, if found guilty, imprisoned in a youth facility until he's 21. At that time, he would be evaluated to determine whether he's still a risk to society. If so, he could be resentenced as an adult.
That might not satisfy our thirst for vengeance. But it would recognize there's a shared societal responsibility when a kid goes this horribly wrong, as well as a shared obligation to at least try to redeem him.
"We can't throw away children, and we can’t throw away hope," Labelle says.
"It's easy to say, 'He’s a monster, let’s punish him and throw away key.' And then we don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to think about what could have been done differently."
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