A staffer recalls chaos and wound at key sentencing hearing for a Michigan school shooter
Jul 26, 2023, 9:02 PM | Updated: Jul 27, 2023, 3:00 pm
(Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News via AP, File)
PONTIAC, Mich. (AP) — Prosecutors began making their case Thursday for a life sentence for a Michigan teenager who killed four students at his high school in 2021, introducing dark journal entries, chilling video and testimony from a wounded staff member who dropped to the floor to block her door.
“He was aiming to kill me,” said Molly Darnell, who was one of seven people wounded that day.
Ethan Crumbley, 17, has pleaded guilty to murder, terrorism and other crimes at Oxford High School. But a no-parole sentence for minors isn’t automatic after a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and Michigan’s top court.
Oakland County Judge Kwame Rowe must consider many factors. Crumbley’s lawyers argue that he should be released at some point, saying the violence was the climax of the teen’s untreated mental illness and “abhorrent family life.”
But in her opening remarks, prosecutor Karen McDonald said Crumbley was an “offender like no other,” torturing and killing birds months earlier, meticulously planning the shooting and willing to surrender to spend his life behind bars.
“We must tell the truth. Our witnesses must tell the truth, and they must tell all of it,” McDonald told the judge in support of a life sentence.
At Oxford High, Darnell worked with teachers on their lesson plans. She didn’t know Crumbley, who was 15 at the time.
She recalled seeing an unusual rush of students outside her office at lunch.
“I’m like, OK, it could be a prank. Is there something happening in the parking lot?” Darnell recalled. “That’s when an announcement came on that we were headed into lockdown. It was not a drill. There were doors slamming and the sound of pops.”
She said she suddenly “locked eyes” with a boy in baggy clothes raising a gun toward her.
“I heard three very loud (shots), physically loud. I could feel them,” said Darnell, who was struck in the upper left arm. “I kind of jumped to the right and felt my left shoulder move back. It felt like someone had burned me with hot water.”
She said she dropped to her knees to install a portable door lock and moved a cabinet in place for protection.
“At that point I had sent my husband a text message,” Darnell said. “I said, ‘I love you. Active shooter.’ He said, ‘Just get safe.’”
She made a tourniquet with her sweater to stop the bleeding and called her husband to say she had been shot. Darnell did not return to her job when the school reopened a few months later.
“It was just too hard to be there,” she said.
There was a tense moment during cross-examination when a lawyer for Crumbley asked Darnell whether she knew anything about the teen’s mental health or background.
“Do you know how hard it is to heal from something like this?” she replied. “Learning what happened is not part of my healing process.”
Earlier, relatives of the victims quietly wept as video of the shooting, recorded on school security cameras, was played in court. Crumbley, meanwhile, looked down.
Lt. Timothy Willis said a 22-page handwritten journal was found in a bathroom stall, apparently left behind by Crumbley before he emerged in a hallway with a gun.
“I wish to hear the screams of the children as I shoot them,” he wrote.
Crumbley also made a video on the eve of the shooting, rambling about the state of education and politics as well as God and the devil. He said he would kill the next day.
“I’m sorry the families have to go through this,” Crumbley said.
His lawyers introduced passages from his journal to try to show that Crumbley was deeply disturbed and in poor mental health.
“I can feel the evil around me and even dogs sense it. … I don’t want to be evil,” he wrote.
Crumbley’s lawyers plan to offer testimony from an expert in child brain development and another who has spent time with the teen and performed psychological tests.
Crumbley is “not one of those rare individuals who is irreparably corrupt and can’t be rehabilitated,” attorney Paulette Michel Loftin said in her opening statement.
He could be given a minimum sentence somewhere from 25 years to 40 years. He would then be eligible for parole, though the parole board has much discretion to keep a prisoner in custody.
On the day of the shooting, Crumbley and his parents met with school staff after a teacher was troubled by drawings that included a bloody body and a gun pointing at the words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
Crumbley was allowed to stay in school, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Detroit, though his backpack was not checked for weapons.
His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are separately charged with involuntary manslaughter. They’re accused of buying a gun for their son and ignoring his mental health needs.
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