Roundel with Justice

North Netherlandish Roundel with Justice, ca. 1510. The Cloisters Collection, 1983

On November 30, 2021, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley walked into Michigan’s Oxford High School and began to shoot. Four students were killed, seven injured. Crumbley is now being held for trial, as an adult, on 24 counts. His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, bought him the gun as a Christmas present. They failed to secure it, despite being told by the school that Ethan exhibited troubling behaviors. They have also been charged. The school officials who failed to search Ethan’s backpack before he returned to class from a conference about his behavior, may also face civil charges.

I’ve been pondering how ill-served the victims and the perpetrator himself were: particularly by Ethan’s parents, and perhaps by school officials who understood the danger, but were not able to decisively intervene. Everyone involved could have been so easily spared had this young man been kept away from a weapon, had he gotten the help he needed, had the warning signs been promptly heeded.

But here is the bottom line: if convicted, Ethan—a high school sophomore—may well go to prison for the rest of his natural life. Under Michigan law, he might even be put to death when he reaches adulthood. And that, too, doesn’t have to be. I say this because a member of my own family was beaten to death by a high school student. That boy is now a man. He walks the streets today. I believe justice has been served.

As I read some of the enraging and heartbreaking details about this event, my mind went back over the decades to my cousin Jesse, and the incalculable human pain brought about by his murder. Jesse was roughly my mom’s age. They grew up together; he was like a brother to her.

There was one difference: Jesse was quite wealthy. My mom grew up in the shadow of that wealth: her parents were not well to do. When my parents got divorced, her own financial life got harder. To make a long story short, Jesse was there for her, and gave her some money. For tax reasons, I suppose, these funds were ostensibly provided as loans. But the understanding was that this money was never to be repaid, and that more would come.

Despite his affluence, Jesse had many challenges. By middle age, he used a cane. He pursued unconventional, sometimes unwise, casual relationships with women, and at one point, he became involved with a woman who had two teenage sons. One day, Jesse arrived home to his fancy apartment to discover that these two boys were robbing the place.

I don’t know the full details. Presumably, the young men panicked, and the 16-year-old bludgeoned Jesse to death. The case made the tabloids. The perpetrator was quickly caught and ultimately convicted of murder and robbery. The crime bore uncanny similarity to the killing of a middle school teacher depicted in my University of Chicago colleague Reuben Miller’s new book about the aftermath of incarceration, Halfway Home (Little, Brown, 2021)

The reverberations of this tragedy went well beyond the event itself. Soon after Jesse’s funeral, my mom got a call from his lawyer. There was nothing in writing to indicate that the loan Jesse had made to her were forgivable, and she was required to return the money. She was unmentioned in his will.

My mom had phone calls with the lawyer. He was very sorry; there was nothing he could do.

A divorced single mom in modest circumstances, my mother scraped together the money and sent it back. In addition to grieving her beloved cousin and coping with the horror of his loss, she was financially devastated. Her life was never the same, all because of an atrocity committed by a panicked teenage boy.

As I pondered this crime in my family and the Oxford school shootings, I logged into one of those background-check websites, to learn what became of that boy whose impulsive horrible act so wounded my family. I discovered that he served about twenty years in prison. As far as I know, he apparently lives a normal life in middle age. To my knowledge, he has not been convicted of anything else since. The website indicates that he’s a registered Republican.

And that’s a good thing. His life isn’t defined by—shouldn’t be defined by—an atrocity he perpetrated so many years ago. Of course, I would have given anything to have stopped that crime. I believe he needed to be incarcerated during his teen years, a time when he was clearly a dangerous person.

But that’s about it. What good would it have accomplished—and how would it have helped my mom or Jesse’s immediate survivors—to lock this man in a cage for another few decades, let alone for the rest of his life?

I understand why we, as a society, must incapacitate dangerous people, why we harshly punish people who commit cruel and calculating crimes. I understand why we sent Seal Team Six to kill Bin Laden, rather than capturing him and bringing him to trial. More than many of my liberal friends and colleagues, I would entertain the death penalty for cybercriminals who attack a hospital with ransomware that costs human lives.

There’s a straightforward and utilitarian calculus of deterrence here: these are adults, committing coldly calculated, adult crimes. But what’s the point of vengeance in response to a stupid, deranged, or impulsive teenage crime? What does it accomplish? That time, energy and resources spent on exacting a lifetime of vengeance on the perpetrator is far better spent honoring and helping the victims, doing what we can to heal the survivors.

As my mother approaches her ninetieth year, I wish I had taken this advice to heart and done more to support her in the aftermath of that tragic atrocity.

As I remember these years, I hope we honor the victims and survivors in Oxford. I hope we hold the perpetrators’ parents accountable for their incredibly irresponsible behavior. I also hope that the judicial system confines this 15-year-old killer right now to prevent further harm to himself or to others.

But beyond that, I hope we remember that we are all fragile humans, capable of great good, and of great evil, too. We must care for each other in this short time we share together on this earth.

I hope we treat this young man with a spirit of compassion and forgiveness. I hope that someday he has an opportunity to live a somewhat normal life, even as we never forget that his depraved act denied that opportunity to other precious humans.

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, University of Chicago. He is also an affiliate professor in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division and the Department of Public Health Sciences.