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Is Michigan school shooting suspect Ethan Crumbley competent? Experts weigh in

Tresa Baldas and Elisha Anderson, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

DETROIT — As the wheels of justice grind away in the sensational Oxford High School shooting case, defense experts are urging the public to be patient.

It's a high-profile murder case involving a minor charged as an adult, four deaths, parental responsibility, and hundreds of witnesses, social media posts and texts, they say.

The justice system typically moves slowly in even the simplest cases, they note, and this one is far from simple.

"This is a high-profile case. It has the interest of the country. You’ve got four teenagers dead and a number of other kids and a teacher shot," said veteran criminal defense attorney Mike Rataj, who has handled numerous high-profile cases in metro Detroit. "So, certainly the lawyers representing the (alleged) child shooter have their work cut out for them, that’s for sure."

Ethan Crumbley, the 15-year-old charged in the shooting, has a probable cause conference set for Monday. That's when both sides will discuss the case and how to proceed.

The suspect's parents, Jennifer Crumbley, 43, and James Crumbley, 45, are facing involuntary manslaughter charges for their alleged roles in the mass shooting: They bought their son the gun he allegedly used in the shooting as an early Christmas present. They have a probable cause conference set for Tuesday.


Gabi Silver, a longtime criminal defense attorney not involved in the cases, said probable cause conferences are held so attorneys and judges can talk about next steps. There also may be discussions about whether there is going to be a psychological defense at that time, Silver said. The defense could seek a competency evaluation during the hearing. Ethan Crumbley faces up to life in prison if convicted on first-degree murder charges.

A competency hearing is used to determine if the defendant understands the nature of the charges against him or her, and is able to rationally assist his or her attorney in the defense, Silver said.

Rataj believes a competency hearing is the next logical step for the defense.

"I would probably be considering some kind of competency evaluation for the kid. You're obligated to," Rataj said. "If there’s some indication that (Ethan Crumbley) had some type of psychiatric problems, then you certainly want a professional to take a look at that ... that would be the first move that any lawyer would want to look at at this stage."


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