Prosecutor Karen McDonald Says There’s ‘No Roadmap’ for The Oxford Case

The Nov. 30 mass shooting — and a novel effort to hold the alleged gunman’s parents accountable — thrust McDonald into the media spotlight
Karen McDonald - oxford high school
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald

Screams from the hallway forced Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald to stop whatever she was doing and rise from her desk in Pontiac. An assistant had just received a call from her son, an Oxford High School student, who told her another student had opened fire.

The Nov. 30 massacre in Oxford, a rural burg about 15 miles north of the county seat, would soon consume national headlines — and McDonald’s public and private lives. Just a year into the job, she’d be thrust before a phalanx of cameras to provide updates and explain legal decisions that included a somewhat novel resolution to file criminal charges against the parents of the 15-year-old shooting suspect.

“The Oxford case is like nothing I’ve ever encountered,” McDonald, 51, recalls two months after the shooting, during a Zoom interview from her Pontiac office. “There’s no roadmap, no protocol. I’m just trying to lead the office and our team in the right direction.”

In public, McDonald was seen by the world as a creative, unsparing prosecutor, crusading for justice for the four students killed, seven injured, and hundreds terrorized by the event. But McDonald says she’s motivated as much by her personal perspective — she’s a former high school English and drama teacher, a mother of five, and a native of the south-central Michigan town of Portland (which is even smaller than Oxford) — as anything else.

“Personally, you’re facing down some really, really dark things,” she says softly. “You’re sitting with such utter grief and sadness. The most difficult part for me is contemplating and sitting with the events that occurred and led up to Nov. 30, and the internal struggle of knowing how easily they could have been prevented.”

Still, these moments are why she gave up a safe seat as an Oakland County judge in 2019 to challenge and defeat three-term incumbent Prosecutor Jessica Cooper in the 2020 Democratic primary. McDonald went on to be the top vote-getter in any Oakland County race in the general election.

Being a judge, she says, was confining. She wanted to extend her reach beyond sentencing, to have a broader influence over the justice system. Before Oxford, in fact, her most notable action had been overturning the conviction of 50-year-old Juwan Deering, who was 15 years into a life sentence for the deaths of five children in a Royal Oak house fire in 2000. An investigation uncovered prosecutorial misconduct that cast serious doubt on his guilt.

McDonald took some heat for that, but it was a product of the same instinct to do what’s rightrather than what’s convenientthat her colleagues say she’s applied to the case against suspected Oxford shooter Ethan Crumbley and his family.

In a move that’s unprecedented in Michigan and exceedingly rare nationally in such cases, McDonald charged Crumbley’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, after evidence emerged that they had supplied the boy his weapon while ignoring a litany of warning signs about his dangerous state of mind.

Talk of the Nation

The Oxford High School mass shooting turned Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald into a ubiquitous presence on both local and national news. In addition to her multiple CNN cameos, including with Anderson Cooper (first) and Brianna Keilar (second), she has appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America with George Stephanopoulos (third), WDIV Channel 4 with Devin Scillian (fourth), and MSNBC with Nicolle Wallace (fifth).

“After it happened, Karen was already asking, ‘How does this happen? It doesn’t just come out of the blue,’” Chief Assistant Prosecutor David Williams says. “In her own mind, she was wondering, ‘Where were the parents?’”

With sudden prominence comes criticism, and McDonald received her share. Most notably, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said police were unprepared to arrest the Crumbley parents when McDonald announced the charges against them at a press conference, a miscue that became a national debacle when the parents couldn’t be located and were eventually found hunkered down in an artist friend’s Detroit loft and arrested. McDonald accepts no blame for that — she told Wolf Blitzer on CNN, “I don’t know where the lack of communication was, and honestly, I don’t care” — and now says she’s past answering questions about it.

“That part of the story is history to me,” she tells Hour Detroit. “It doesn’t serve anyone to do the back and forth about what happened. What I know is that the assistant prosecutors in my office were solely focused on doing the right thing in very difficult circumstances. I don’t think our office or the sheriff’s department expected Jennifer and James Crumbley, upon learning their son was a mass shooter, would get in their car and leave. Sheriff Bouchard and I have since talked and agreed we would like to move on from this. There are far more important things to focus on.”

She also suffered a barrage of standard-issue sexist chatter for her clothes and appearance, including from a Reddit thread the morning after the Crumbley parents were charged titled “What’s the more egregious offense, manslaughter or prosecutor Karen McDonald’s press conference outfit?” The prosecutor says she’s been shrugging off such sexism as far back as Wayne State University Law School, when male classmates criticized her for getting pregnant during her final year. They were baffled at how she would finish the term; she had the baby on a Monday, returned to class the following Monday, and finished the term with a 4.0 GPA.

“The pushback received at a moment of badass fierceness is pushback that you wouldn’t see if it were a man at the podium,” says her twin sister, Kristen McDonald Rivet, vice president of the progressive economic think tank Michigan Future and among the first people McDonald called within an hour of the shooting. “She chose to ignore it.”

Still, within a day or two, as it became evident McDonald would be making regular and high-profile media appearances, Rivet packed her car with outfit options and drove 90 miles from her Bay City home to help her sister.

Rivet also told her sister that the shooting prompted her 11-year-old son to erupt in sobs at the dinner table. “They can’t keep us safe,” he told his mother. McDonald cried when she heard that story, Rivet says, and replied sadly, “He’s probably right.”

For the victims’ families, though, her role is to seek justice, and that’s what she reminds herself when public pressure mounts or when she must contend with her own emotional reaction to the mass shooting.

“I think I say at least five times a day, ‘I didn’t have a kid killed at school; I’m not going to use up any energy on feeling sorry for myself,’” McDonald says. “The pain these people are feeling is enormous. The goal is really peeling back [the Crumbleys’] lives and seeing what the motives were and trying to understand how this happened. How did we end up here?”

This story is part of the March 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition