US teen Ethan Crumbley gets life in prison without parole for shooting four students dead

  • Long Read
  • 09/12/2023
Ethan Crumbley's victims. From top left, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Shilling. From bottom left, Tate Myre and Madisyn Baldwin
Ethan Crumbley's victims. From top left, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Shilling. From bottom left, Tate Myre and Madisyn Baldwin Photo credit: Obtained by CNN.

By Ray Sanchez, Nicki Brown and Aditi Sangal for CNN

Teenager Ethan Crumbley was sentenced to life in prison without parole Friday for gunning down four classmates and wounding six others and a teacher at Michigan's Oxford High School in 2021.

Dismissing last-minute defense pleas that Crumbley's life is salvageable, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwamé Rowe noted that the "defendant in his own words" told the court "this is nobody's fault but his own."

Rowe said victim Justin Shilling, 17, was shot at point-blank range after being told by the defendant to get on his knees. Hana St. Juliana, 14, was shot a second time after she was down, he said, "to finish the job by shooting her again."

"That is an execution. That is torture. He shot most people multiple times. And, as he wrote, he did this for notoriety. And he wanted to go down … as the biggest school shooter in Michigan history."

At the defense table, Crumbley, 17, looked down as the judge addressed the courtroom.

Before sentencing, Crumbley told the judge: "I am a really bad person. I have done terrible things that no one should ever do." Whatever the sentence handed down, he added, "I do plan to be better."

Crumbley has become the first minor to receive an original sentence of life without the possibility of parole following a 2012 US Supreme Court ruling which found sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare offender, according to court documents in the case. He was 15 when he committed the gruesome attack.

The sentence capped an emotional, hourslong hearing that began with a statement from the mother of shooting victim Madisyn Baldwin, 17, a high school senior who did not live to graduate in 2021. Nicole Beausoleil calmly described seeing her daughter's lifeless body in a steel room on a cold gurney, her fingernails blue and her hair smeared with blood.

"That is not my daughter," Nicole Beausoleil recalled thinking as she delivered the first victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing.

"Madisyn was far from lifeless."

Beausoleil said she had to be dragged away "screaming like a toddler" from the sight of her daughter's body. The scream, she said, should have shattered the glass separating her from her daughter's body one day after the shooting.

"She is the light when you need it most," Beausoleil said of her late daughter. "When the world gets dark, she's the stars."

Madisyn is not "a statistic, a victim," her mother said. She will be "remembered by her name, a name that is loved unconditionally."

Some of the victims' relatives spoke directly to Crumbley, telling him the massacre had failed to break them. Still, both victims' relatives and survivors said their lives have been changed forever, their days filled with an unending sense of anguish, guilt and despair.

Crumbley pleaded guilty last year to one count of terrorism causing death – a rare conviction in a state court – four counts of first-degree murder and 19 other charges related to the deadly rampage.

The sentencing came less than two months after a judge ruled the teen was eligible for the harshest possible punishment in Michigan, noting Crumbley's long "obsession with violence" made rehabilitation unlikely.

Dozens of survivors of the attack at Oxford High School and family members of those killed delivered victim impact statements for hours before the judge handed down Crumbley's sentence. The case unfolded as school shootings continue to plague American campuses, with 80 recorded so far this year, a CNN analysis shows.

The defendant previously admitted in court that on November 30, 2021 – when he was 15 – he took a gun from an unlocked container in his home, hid it in his backpack and took it out in a bathroom before opening fire on his schoolmates.

Crumbley is the first minor to receive an original sentence of life without parole since a 2012 Supreme Court ruling.
Crumbley is the first minor to receive an original sentence of life without parole since a 2012 Supreme Court ruling. Photo credit: AP / Carlos Osorio via CNN.

'Navigating our way through complete hell'

Buck Myre, the father of another slain student, Tate Myre, 16, said his family has spent years "navigating our way through complete hell" and Friday's hearing dealt "them another hand of heartaches that we'll have to play."

"As we navigate these treacherous waters, we try to honor Tate and, cause we know he's looking down on us," Myre said. "And I know he's not very proud of how his dad is handling this. But his dad's fighting, his mom's fighting, and his brothers are fighting."

His family wants the shooter to spend his life "rotting in his cell," Myre said.

"What you stole from us is not replaceable, but what we won't let you steal from us is a life of normalcy. And we'll find a way to get there through forgiveness and through putting good into this world," he said.

Jill Soave, Justin's mother, told Crumbley that her son "would've been your friend, if you had only asked him."

"If you were that lonely, that miserable, that lost, and you really needed a friend, Justin would've been your friend," she said.

Crumbley caused terror and pain that day, Soave said, "but you did not destroy us."

The defendant kept his head down as she spoke.

Justin's father, Craig Shilling, told the court preparing his statement was the hardest thing he's ever had to write.

"These days, there's not much happiness in the holidays. Birthdays and those milestone days don't carry the special feeling they always used to," he said.

The pain his family endures cannot be put into words, said Shilling, adding he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggles to get out of bed most days.

"Anxiety, stress, sleepless nights and uncontrolled emotional heartbreak make even the simplest, most normal things difficult," he said, noting he no longer enjoys the things he used to do with his son – golfing, kayaking, bowling, fishing.

Instead, life is filled with debilitating pain, Schilling said.

"I still find myself waiting up for him to get home from work so we can get a few minutes to chat," he said.

Shilling asked the court to impose the maximum penalty on a person who lacked "human decency."

"My son doesn't get a second chance, and neither should he," Shilling said.

Hana's father, Steve St. Juliana, said Crumbley could do "absolutely nothing" to earn his forgiveness for taking away a "beautiful, caring soul" with unlimited potential.

"His age plays no part. His potential is irrelevant," he said.

"There is utterly nothing that he could ever do to contribute to society that could make up for the lives that he has ruthlessly taken."

Reina St. Juliana lamented not being able to go thrifting with her sister Hana, helping each other remember songs, taking walks together.

"Instead of speaking at her wedding, I spoke at her funeral. Instead of fishtailing her hair for a game, I curled her hair in a casket," she said.

Reina St. Juliana also read a statement from her mother:

"Now in my daily life, whenever I see a pair of sisters, I'm sad. When I see other siblings getting along, I'm sad. When I see other mothers and daughters, I'm sad. When I see other families having a good time, I'm sad. When I see others her age having fun, I'm sad. Every day, every moment, every experience, I think of Hana and I'm sad."

Their family is "surviving," the statement said, but "not living."

'I am the writer of my own story'

Survivors also shared their pain. Molly Darnell, an educator who was shot that day, told Crumbley he did not have "the power to destroy who I am."

"I am the writer of my own story," she said.

Life in prison without parole is the appropriate sentence, Darnell said.

"You intended to leave my husband a widower and my children motherless. There is no forgiveness for you," she said. "But I have found that I do not need to forgive you to live a life full of kindness and compassion, for both myself and others."

Oxford High student Kylie Ossege told the court that school day started like any other and then she heard what sounded like a balloon popped. She recalled falling to the ground and hearing screams. People were running. She realized she had been shot. "I thought I was going to die."

Ossege said her legs weren't moving. Under her cheek the blood-soaked carpet felt warm and made a squishing sound. She realized Hana was groaning nearby. "Someone will come help us," she told her dying classmate. "Don't worry. Just keep breathing. Just please stay with me."

Ossege repeated her mother's phone number and solved math problems in her head "to make sure my brain was functioning" and she was still alive.

Riley Franz, another survivor who was wounded, said she mourns "the person I used to be."

"Now when I sit at a school, I feel anxious — checking for all my exits, highly in tune with all movements inside and outside the classroom, flinching at every sound from the walking upstairs to a pencil dropping, and counting down the minutes until I feel that I can breathe again," she said.

Keegan Gregory, who was trapped in a bathroom at one point with the shooter and Justin Shilling, recalled his classmate getting shot and "I couldn't do anything about it."

"I felt then, and still feel now, the guilt of surviving," he said. "I know that if it wasn't Justin's life that was taken, it could've been mine, and I'm forever grateful."

Madeline Johnson recalled walking with Madisyn, her best friend, the morning of the shooting. They split to go to class. They said goodbye and parted ways.

"I didn't think that the bye was going to be permanent," Johnson told the court Friday.

The gunfire erupted. The pattern of the shots plays out in Johnson's head every day, she said. She blames herself for leaving her best friend that day.

Crumbley's parents await criminal trial

As their son's fate was decided on Friday, Crumbley's parents await their own criminal trial. Jennifer and James Crumbley have been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty.

Crumbley's parents were denied access to attend Friday's hearing, according to court records.

Prosecutors have said the couple gave their son easy access to a gun and disregarded signs he was a threat. The parents allegedly ignored Crumbley's request for mental health treatment after the teen said he needed help, according to an opinion written by a panel of judges in March.

The parents have argued the charges have no legal justification and they should not be held responsible for their son's killings.

James Crumbley purchased the gun used in the shooting just four days before the deadly attack, prosecutors have said.

Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald hugs Nicole Beausoleil, mother of Madisyn Baldwin, during Ethan Crumbley's sentencing hearing.
Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald hugs Nicole Beausoleil, mother of Madisyn Baldwin, during Ethan Crumbley's sentencing hearing. Photo credit: AP / Carlos Osorio via CNN.

In September, when Rowe ruled Crumbley was eligible for a sentence of life without parole, the judge noted the teen's unstable home environment and the failure of his parents to take his mental health seriously.

But Rowe called the defendant the "sole participant" in the mass shooting – methodically walking through the school, "picking and choosing who was going to die," and determined to "kill the innocent."

The judge cited Crumbley's disturbing writings and documented violence against animals, and noted the defendant this year bypassed technical security on a jail tablet to watch graphic, violent content online.

Oakland County prosecutors and Crumbley's defense team presented evidence over the summer at a so-called Miller hearing required when prosecutors seek a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a minor defendant.

The state argued the premeditation of Crumbley's attack justified a finite life sentence. Prosecutors played audio messages in court in which the teen said, "I am going to be the next school shooter," and that he would "have so much fun."

The defense asked the court to consider mitigating factors like Crumbley's difficult home life and his ignored pleas for mental health treatment. The defense asked that Crumbley be given a chance at rehabilitation, with a parole board ultimately determining his progress.

Crumbley had originally pleaded not guilty to the charges but later changed his plea. His defense team had previously filed a notice of an insanity defense for the teen but decided a guilty plea was in his best interest, according to Crumbley's attorney.

The day of the massacre, students and teachers said they relied on tactics they'd learned in active shooter drills to protect themselves. When the gunfire erupted, frightened students barricaded doors, turned off the lights, and called for help. Some children armed themselves with scissors in case they needed to fight back.