LANSING, Mich. – Michigan prosecutors on Wednesday charged a teen with terrorism in a deadly mass shooting at his high school, a novel approach made possible by a law enacted after the 9/11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.
The state's 2002 anti-terrorism law defines a terroristic act as one intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to affect the conduct of a government through intimidation or coercion. Gun-control advocates who track gunfire incidents on school grounds were not immediately aware of similar terrorism charges having been filed in other states.
“It's not a usual, a typical charge," Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said of terrorism causing death, adding that the four students who were killed and seven others who were shot are not the only victims. “What about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home right now, who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever step foot back in that school? Those are victims, too, and so are their families and so is the community. The charge of terrorism reflects that.”
Ethan Crumbley, 15, also was charged with first-degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder and gun crimes in Tuesday's attack at Oxford High School. He faces life in prison on both the terrorism and murder counts. Crumbley pleaded not guilty.
Michigan, unlike federal law and some states with their own anti-terrorism laws, has a broader definition beyond pressuring or retaliating against only the government with violence. In Florida, for instance — where the 2018 high school massacre in Parkland occurred — the shooter was not charged with terrorism. Nor was the shooter in a 2017 rampage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which was a federal case.
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said he “100%” backs the terrorism charge against Crumbley.
“If you weren't hit by a bullet, it doesn't mean you weren't terrorized that day and won't have nightmares about (it) the rest of your life — whether you're a parent, a teacher or a student in that class,” he said.
In 2012, the Michigan attorney general's office for the first time issued a terrorism charge after authorities apprehended a man who fired shots from his car at about two-dozen vehicles along the Interstate 96 corridor.
The law more typically has been used to charge people with making terroristic threats, such as calling in bomb threats, said Matthew Schneider, a former federal prosecutor who is uninvolved in the case and who previously was the state's chief deputy attorney general.
In 2005, a Michigan teen accused of plotting a massacre at his Macomb County high school was convicted of threatening an act of terrorism and other charges in a county-filed case that appeared to be one of the first in the country to apply anti-terrorism laws to threats of school violence.
“This is why we have this law. It's for this type of case. This is not just a murder case," Schneider said of this week's slayings. “It's going to terrorize a generation of these kids who were in the school. The impact is on thousands of people.”
He said lawmakers who enacted the law were thinking of terrorism in the traditional sense in the months after 9/11.
“But since that time it's been used for other things,” he said. “That doesn't mean that it's being used improperly because it fits the elements. It fits the language of the statute.”
Schneider likened the state law to the 1970 federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which was written with the mob in mind but now helps prosecute “all kinds of things” including street gangs.
Michigan's law also was utilized last year when Attorney General Dana Nessel charged several men with providing material support for terrorist acts in plots to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and attack the state Capitol.
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