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Terrorism charge in Michigan school shooting could mark 'new way' forward, experts say

"We may now see, at least, consideration by prosecutors for seeking these charges," said former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade.

As Michigan grapples with a school shooting that killed four students Tuesday, the 15-year-old boy accused of the massacre faces a rare charge of terrorism, which experts say could set a precedent for future cases.

Prosecutors announced Wednesday that they will charge the boy, Ethan Crumbley, with four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the deadly rampage at Oxford High School in suburban Detroit.

They also said he will face a terrorism charge, which Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald acknowledged is neither "usual" nor "typical."

The charge was issued under Michigan's 2002 anti-terrorism statute. McDonald said she believed the charge was fitting for the crime and that it reflected the impact the shooting will have on survivors, victims' families and the larger community.

“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?” McDonald said.

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney for Eastern Michigan who teaches at the University of Michigan law school, said she was initially taken aback by the charge, saying in a phone interview Thursday: "I did not see it coming.

"It is unusual to see," said McQuade, who is an NBC News and MSNBC legal analyst. However, she said, she felt it was "an appropriate charge under the circumstances," agreeing with McDonald that “the murder charges did not address the terror that [was] inflicted on all of these students at that school and the entire community.”

Students at Oxford High School and members of the community gather Wednesday for a candlelight prayer vigil at Bridgewood Church in Clarkston, Mich.Seth Herald / Reuters

Matthew Schneider, also a former U.S. attorney for Eastern Michigan, said he agreed that "the crime fits the charge."

"I mean, this is not simply a murder case, because [in] a murder case, the victims are the people who were murdered and immediate family of the people who were there," he said.

Why this case and not others?

Anti-terrorism laws vary from state to state, and there is no specific domestic terrorism law in the federal criminal code, Schneider said.

He said that while lawmakers in Michigan might not have had incidents like Tuesday's massacre in mind when they enacted the statute in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he believes the incident could fit the state's description of a terroristic act.

Schneider said Wednesday’s charge appeared to be “very similar” to a 2012 case in which a man was charged with terrorism after he was accused of firing shots from his car at other vehicles along a Michigan interstate.

However, he said, identifying a motive could be crucial to winning a conviction.

"You have to look at the motive," he said. "What's the purpose? Is it to terrorize and coerce a civilian population?"

McDonald has said prosecutors had a "mountain" of evidence showing that Tuesday's mass shooting was premeditated and "not just an impulsive act." However, it is still not clear what motive drove the attack.

'A new way of looking at gun violence'

McQuade, who acknowledged that anti-terrorism laws differ from state to state, said she believes that the case unfolding in Michigan could change how we look at gun violence.

"I give credit to this prosecutor," she said of McDonald. "She's only been on the job for about a year. She campaigned on a progressive prosecutor's platform, and perhaps this is a new way of looking at gun violence that will become the norm in the future.

“We may now see, at least, consideration by prosecutors for seeking these charges, because it is important, I think, to recognize the trauma that has been inflicted upon a community,” she said.

Schneider said he also could see terrorism charges' being brought more often in mass shooting cases when statutes allow.

"Certainly, I think we're going to see this charge used again," he said.

People embrace Wednesday at a makeshift memorial outside Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich. Scott Olson / Getty Images

He and McQuade said they also agreed with the decision to charge the suspect as an adult.

If he were to be tried as a juvenile, Schneider said, he could be handed "a relatively short time in detention."

"The question is, in the interest of justice, is justice being served by having this person have a relatively short time in detention and then be let free? I think most people would say no," Schneider said.

"This person is extremely dangerous, and if he's willing to do this, he's willing to do this to other people, so that's why you can see the justification for charging him as an adult," he said.