Teenager Ethan Crumbley plans to pursue an insanity defense for his alleged role in the Oxford High School mass shooting that killed four Oxford students, injured seven others and devastated an entire community, according to a Thursday court filing.
"Please take notice that ... Ethan Crumbley intends to assert the defense of insanity at the time of the alleged offense," his lawyers, Paulette Loftin and Amy Hopp wrote in the one-paragraph filing in Oakland County Circuit Court.
The filing now paves the way for Crumbley to receive a psychiatric evaluation, which has not yet been done and is needed to pursue an insanity defense.
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald has previously stated that she has no reason to believe that Crumbley's mental state would affect his ability to face charges.
Mike Rataj, a prominent defense attorney who has used the insanity defense in multiple cases during his 30-plus-year legal career, expected this move from Ethan Crumbley's lawyers.
"I don’t have all the facts. I don’t have contact with the client. But from a distance, it seems to me that this is the most prudent form of action," Rataj said of the insanity defense, adding: "Sometimes it flies, sometimes it doesn't."
Rataj said the Crumbley defense will have to overcome the factual hurdle as to "if he's actually insane," which would point to culpability. And there will be plenty of experts involved, he noted.
"It’s going to come down to a battle of the experts," Rataj said, "and whether the jury is going to believe that the kid cannot formulate the necessary intent because he’s insane."
Rataj also noted: "People who are schizophrenic — that doesn’t necessarily mean that they're not guilty by reason of insanity."
Prosecutors have portrayed Crumbley as a troubled and homicidal teen who battled depression, hallucinated, tortured animals, was fascinated with guns and Nazi propaganda. They also have blamed the parents for the mass shooting, saying they ignored numerous red flags that their son was in trouble, and instead bought him a gun, which he allegedly used in the massacre.
"The (parents) had information long before Nov. 30 (six months prior to the shooting) that their son's only friend moved at the end of October, that the family dog died, that their son was sadder than usual, and that he was sending his mother disturbing texts about his state of mind," the prosecution has argued in court documents. "Instead of paying attention to their son and getting him help, they bought him a gun."
Was Ethan 'mad or bad?'
Dr. Ziv Cohen, a Cornell University psychiatrist who has consulted on over 50 murder cases, said the Ethan Crumbley defense team faces an uphill battle in proving legal insanity.
According to Cohen, the legal definition of insanity requires proving that someone is so out of touch with reality, that they don’t understand the consequences of their actions.
“It’s a pretty high threshold you have to cross,” Cohen said, adding “less than 1% of insanity defenses actually work.”
According to Cohen, it will not be enough to show that Ethan Crumbley was depressed or engaged in unusual behavior, like torturing animals, which prosecutors have alleged.
At issue will be determining whether Ethan Crumbley has a psychotic illness — where he breaks from reality and doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions — or if his behavior points more to bad character of that of a psychopath.
“Not having a conscience doesn’t reduce your culpability,” Cohen said.
As for allegations that Ethan Crumbley tortured animals, Cohen said that’s not a pattern with psychosis, but rather more with someone who has psychopathy — or is a psychopath.
According to Cohen, a key question in Ethan Crumbley’s case will be: Was he mad or bad?
“These defendants are either mad or bad,” Cohen said. “Madness versus badness are both on the table. I suspect you’re going to have a battle of the experts.”
Being 15 may help
Cohen, who frequently evaluates psychopaths, predators and violent criminals in prison, said what Ethan Crumbley may have going for him is his youth. The jury might be more likely to feel compassionate toward him, he said, or view the teen as troubled or not well, and therefore may have a lower threshold for considering him insane.
A judge could also take his age into consideration at sentencing, and give him a lower sentence, Cohen said, noting that happened in 2016 psychiatric hospital murder case he testified in in New York. The jury convicted a 20-year-old psychiatric patient of second-degree murder for strangling another patient in the shower with a towel after beating him first. The judge gave him 17 years instead of 25 to life.
Cohen, also an adjunct professor at Columbia University, explained how an insanity defense can work.
For example, if a schizophrenic shoots a police officer because they think he’s an alien invader, that’s a classic example of someone who is legally insane, he said. They don’t understand they are shooting a human, but an alien invader.
But if a schizophrenic is irritable and pushes someone in front of a subway, that doesn’t fit the criteria for legal insanity, he said.
Insanity defenses can also work in a plea deal, where the defendant has such a such a strong showing of legal insanity that the prosecutor agrees to an insanity plea.
"But in a case like this, " Cohen said, "a prosecutor is unlikely to agree to that."
The insanity defense came as no surprise to the prosecutor's office.
"As expected, Ethan Crumbley's attorney has requested an evalution of his criminal procedure, This is standard procedure," Chief Assistant Oakland County Prosecutor David Williams said in a statement, adding the teenage suspect will be evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist, who will then prepare a written report.
'A cry for help'
Ethan Crumbley is charged with shooting up his school with a gun that his parents bought him as an early Christmas present on Black Friday, which was just four days before the Nov. 30 massacre.
His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, have also been charged in the case with involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors allege the parents not only ignored their son's problems, but bought him a gun that allowed him to carry out the crime, and failed to properly secure it in the house.
According to police, school officials and the prosecution, the Crumbleys — who met with school officials on the morning of the shooting to address behavioral concerns about their son — never disclosed that they had bought their son a gun. That morning, Ethan Crumbley had drawn a violent note on his homework, featuring a gun and the words: "The thoughts won't stop. Help me."
School officials called the parents in, but they refused to bring their son home, police and prosecutors have said. The school told the parents they had 48 hours to get their son therapy, and then allowed Ethan Crumbley to return to class.
Shortly after, prosecutors say, Ethan Crumbley emerged from a bathroom and opened fire in a hallway in a five-minute rampage that killed four students and injured seven others.
"As horrifying as it is, sometimes these actions can be a cry for help," Dr. Cohen said of the shooting.
All three Crumbleys have pleaded not guilty. The parents maintain they had properly secured the gun, that they had no way of knowing their son would carry out a mass shooting with it, and that they are not responsible for the school shooting. If convicted on involuntary manslaughter charges, the mom and dad each face up to 15 years in prison.
Their son faces life in prison if convicted.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Oxford High shooting: Ethan Crumbley plans insanity defense