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Oxford High School shooter asks to withdraw guilty plea, be resentenced

Kara Berg
The Detroit News

Appellate attorneys for Ethan Crumbley, the Oxford teen now serving a life sentence for fatally shooting four students at his high school in 2021, filed a motion Friday to withdraw his guilty plea and correct what they called an invalid sentence, noting the judge did not properly ensure he understood what a guilty plea meant.

The two motions, filed Friday in Oakland County Circuit Court, also argue that Crumbley's earlier attorneys were not effective in investigating his "cognitive-adaptive deficits" and other mitigating factors in his case. The motions were filed on the last day the teen's attorneys could have filed them before his appeals time limit ran out.

Crumbley, who was 15 at the time of the shooting at Oxford High School, pleaded guilty in October 2022 to killing four classmates: Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17. He also pleaded guilty to injuring six other students and a teacher. He was sentenced to life without parole in December.

State Appellate Defender Office Attorney Jacqueline Ouvry said in a motion to withdraw the shooter's guilty plea and a motion to correct an invalid sentence that the shooter's cognitive-adaptive dysfunctions — possibly caused by alcohol exposure in the womb — were never adequately raised during his plea and sentencing.

“Ethan was 16 years old, laboring with cognitive-adaptive dysfunction, and suffering from mental illness when he was tasked with evaluating whether to waive his trial rights and enter a plea,” Ouvry wrote in the motion to withdraw a plea.

The State Appellate Defender Office also said in a press release that its lawyers found new evidence that doesn’t support a life without parole sentence, including witnesses who can speak to his struggles during childhood, his mother’s alcohol abuse during pregnancy and the potential impact of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder on his life.

They also have an expert witness who can “properly” present information about the shooter and his childhood instead of “one who cut and pasted information from other reports and did not understand the indicia for evaluating a life without parole sentence for a child," according to the office's press release.

State Appellate Defender Office attorneys are arguing that Ethan Crumbley's original defense attorney Paulette Michel Loftin was not effective in investigating his "cognitive-adaptive deficits" and other mitigating factors in his case and that Ethan's October 2022 guilty plea should be withdrawn.

A spokeswoman for Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald didn't immediately respond Friday to a request seeking comment.

A large section of the sentencing motion focused on the defense's mental health expert, Colin King, who Crumbley's appellate attorneys said was unprepared, “did not know the Miller factors” and did not have experienced with doing Miller evaluations, according to the motion.

King testified during a special hearing, called a Miller hearing, where Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwame Rowe heard evidence to decide if it was fair to sentence the shooter to life without parole. He was one of three defense witnesses.

Now that the motions have been filed, Rowe will review them and decide if he wants to grant Ouvry's request to hold a motion hearing in June 2025. Ouvry wrote in the motions that State Appellate Defender Office needs more time to conduct a thorough investigation into mitigating factors.

If Rowe grants the shooter's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, the case will go back to where it stood in October 2022 before he pleaded guilty. The case will then continue with either a jury trial, bench trial or plea negotiations.

If Rowe grants the motion to correct an invalid sentence, he would then hold another Miller hearing and sentencing hearing where appellate attorneys can present new information they obtained in their investigation.

Rowe also can deny both motions.

Withdrawing his guilty plea

In the motion to withdraw the shooter's guilty plea, Ouvry argues that children are prone to pleading guilty without making a knowing and intelligent decision, according to research done on juvenile offenders. The shooter was 16 when he pleaded guilty. He turned 18 in April.

Ouvry wrote that Rowe only asked the shooter if he understood his rights, not whether he waived them, according to the motion.

“Regardless of actual promises of leniency, a child, such as Ethan, may have hoped that his admissions of responsibility would benefit his parents in some way, or he may have thought getting it over with was worth foregoing his rights at trial," Ouvry wrote.

At his October 2022 hearing admitting guilt, Crumbley answered questions posed to him by the judge. Paulette Michel Loftin, Crumbley’s lawyer, said after the 26-minute hearing that the shooter was remorseful and said the plea was his idea.

Ouvry also wrote that the shooter's school records showed evidence of cognitive and "adaptive" impairments, and his report cards showed “significant learning dysfunction across his school years.” He also had functioning deficits in communication, social skills, practical skills and motor skills, she wrote.

An expert to whom the State Appellate Defender Office said prenatal alcohol exposure could be an explanation for the shooter’s dysfunctions and said testing is warranted to diagnose or rule it out. The shooter’s attorneys failed to explore this angle, as well as explore red flags in his school records and conduct an independent investigation into his family and home environment, according to the motion to withdraw his plea.

The shooter's mother, Jennifer Crumbley, was pregnant with him during her wedding to his father, James Crumbley, and two witnesses said they saw her binge drinking before and during the wedding, according to the motion.

Two witnesses said they saw Jennnifer Crumbley, while seven months pregnant, binge drinking before and during the wedding, according to a motion by Ethan Crumbley's defense attorneys filed Friday in Oakland County Circuit Court.

A witness also said Jennifer allegedly admitted to drinking on her honeymoon while she was pregnant and said it "wouldn’t hurt the fetus because it was so small,” according to the motion to correct an invalid sentence. She was about seven weeks pregnant with her son at her wedding, according to the filing.

Had his attorneys explored this angle, it could have made a difference in the shooter’s decision to waive his right to a trial, according to the motion. Since they did not pursue any neuropsychological testing, the extent of any impairments he may have is unknown, Ouvry wrote.

“(The shooter) believed there was something wrong with his brain and wanted his brain ‘scanned’ to find out what is wrong,” Ouvry wrote. “Ethan should have been advised of possible defenses at trial before he made the solemn decision to move from presumed innocent to convicted. This advice should have included information about his own history, mental illness, cognitive and adaptive impairments that related to his perception and the formation of the intent involved in his crimes. Had he been properly advised, he would not have entered a plea.”

Request to be resentenced

Crumbley's appellate attorneys also argued that his previous attorneys did not properly conduct an independent mitigation investigation before his Miller hearing and sentencing.

Since being appointed in January, the shooter's appeals team has found eight witnesses willing to testify on his behalf and obtained 8,000 pages of new records, according to the filings. Much of the information should have been presented to Rowe before he sentenced the shooter, according to the motion to correct an invalid sentence.

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwame Rowe has been asked by Ethan Crumbley's attorneys to allow Ethan to withdraw his guilty plea and correct what they called an invalid sentence, noting the judge did not properly ensure he understood what a guilty plea meant.

“Critically missing from trial counsel’s presentation was information that the trauma inflicted on Ethan by his parents began when he was in utero and was exposed to alcohol through his mom’s drinking,” Ouvry wrote.

Natalie Brown, a doctor who reviewed the information the appellate attorneys compiled, said there was sufficient evidence to “strongly support the likelihood” that the shooter was affected by his mom’s alcohol consumption while pregnant, according to the motion.

The motion goes in depth about Jenifer and James’ history of drinking and doing drugs, as well as their parenting skills. The mothers of James’ two other children described him as neglectful and said he struggled to hold down a job.

Witnesses told the appellate attorneys that the Crumbleys often fought when the shooter was a child, and would fight in front of him and his friends.  

None of this information was presented to Rowe, Ouvry wrote, and the expert Crumbley's previous attorney, Loftin, did use — King — was “ill-prepared” to talk about the Miller factors in the shooter’s case. She also took testimony from the shooter’s psychiatrist Fariah Qadir and corrections expert Kenneth Romanowski, who Ouvry wrote talked about mental illness without tying it to the specific Miller factors that would prevent a life in prison without parole sentence.

Ouvry wrote that King was unprepared, “did not know the Miller factors” and did not have experienced with doing Miller evaluations, according to the motion.

“Ethan was prejudiced by Dr. King’s confusing, inaccurate, and irrelevant reports and testimony,” Ouvry wrote.

The shooter’s attorneys were ineffective in preparing his defense, including by failing to conduct a mitigation investigation, failing to consult with necessary experts, presenting inadequate experts and not presenting lay witness testimony, according to the motion.

Ineffective assistance of counsel

Much of both motions center on allegations that the shooter's previous attorneys were not effective in handling his case.

Crumbley's appellate attorneys spoke to two of the shooter’s great aunts, a great uncle, a former friend of the shooter’s, a friend of James and Jennifer Crumbley, a Crumbley family friend, the mother of James’ other son and a former neighbor of the Crumbleys. Loftin tried to get last minute support letters from some of these people, but did not bring them to the Miller hearing as lay witnesses, which Ouvry wrote was "unreasonable."

One of the shooter’s great aunts told the appellate attorneys that she believes everyone around him failed him and he should not die in prison.

“I really believe everyone failed Ethan — his parents, the school, society. His counselor failed him. His parents failed him if they knew he was asking for help with his mental problems and they didn’t get him any,” a great aunt said in a statement in the motion for resentencing.

Loftin also did not explore the possibility that the shooter has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, something that his appellate attorneys are looking into, Ouvry wrote.

Education records indicated that the shooter struggled with reading, writing and math as early as kindergarten and that he had issues with executive functioning and social skills, according to the new defense attorneys.

“As a result of trial counsel’s failure, this Court understood virtually nothing about Ethan, and especially nothing about his cognitive-adaptive dysfunctions,” Ouvry wrote. “Based on communications with trial counsel it is anticipated that lead counsel likely will testify that despite information in her possession that Ethan was prenatally exposed to alcohol, FASD was not a focus of her defense presentation.”

kberg@detroitnews.com