The parents of Ethan Crumbley, the teenager who in 2021 opened fire at his high school in Oxford, Michigan, are going on trial for manslaughter in cases that will test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting.
James and Jennifer Crumbley have pleaded not guilty to four charges of involuntary manslaughter for their alleged roles in their son’s rampage, which left four students dead and seven others wounded. They face up to 15 years in prison.
They are standing trial separately. Opening statements in Jennifer Crumbley’s trial began Thursday, and James Crumbley’s trial is tentatively scheduled to start March 5.
In bringing manslaughter charges, prosecutors alleged the gunman’s parents are also responsible for the students’ deaths – a novel and unusual legal theory.
“Jennifer Crumbley didn’t pull the trigger that day, but she is responsible for those deaths,” Oakland County assistant prosecutor Marc Keast said in opening statements.
In particular, prosecutors accuse the gunman’s parents of disregarding the risks when they bought a gun for their son four days before the shooting, even though he was struggling with his mental health and contemplating violence. They also say the parents did not mention the gun to school officials in a meeting to discuss Ethan’s disturbing drawings just hours before the fatal shooting.
“Despite her knowledge of his deteriorating mental crisis, despite her knowledge of his growing social isolation, despite the fact that it’s illegal for a 15-year-old to walk into a gun store and walk out with a handgun by himself, this gun was gifted,” Keast said.
“Even with all of that,” on the day of the shooting, “Jennifer Crumbley was still given the opportunity to prevent these murders from ever happening,” Keast said. “Instead, she chose to do nothing.”
In the defense’s opening statements, attorney Shannon Smith said Jennifer Crumbley did not know about her son’s deteriorating mental state and could not have reasonably foreseen he would use the gun in a mass shooting. Instead, Smith pushed blame on her husband for purchasing the firearm and on the school for failing to notify her about her son’s problematic behavior. Jennifer Crumbley plans to testify to explain her side of the story, Smith said.
“She is going to take the stand and tell you about her life with her son, about the day he became the shooter, and about the day he did something she could have never anticipated or fathomed or predicted,” Smith said. “She will tell you that when she saw the materials in this case, she learned that her son had not been her son for months. That he had been manipulating her, he had been hiding things from her, he had been sending alarming text messages to other people.”
“You will hear that the school never advised Mrs. Crumbley of problematic issues that, if she had heard about, she would have jumped right on top of it,” Smith added.
Parents have been charged for their child’s actions before, but not in this specific way, according to Misty Marris, a trial attorney who has followed the case.
“It’s not the first time that a parent has been held liable in some capacity for the acts of a child or a shooter, however, usually those charges relate to child neglect or manifest as a failure to keep a firearm locked up,” Marris said. “This is very different because it’s actually holding them responsible for the killings.”
Ethan Crumbley, speaking at his sentencing hearing in December, said, “They did not know, and I did not tell them what I planned to do, so they are not at fault for what I’ve done.” His testimony about his parents’ knowledge of his mental health struggles could be key, but it’s not clear at this point whether he will testify.
His attorneys have indicated he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence if called to testify, as the appeal of his sentence remains open. In court Tuesday, Jennifer Crumbley asked the judge to compel her son and his two jail psychiatrists to testify, while the shooter’s attorneys indicated they will not waive privilege or confidentiality for his medical records, the testimony of his doctors or his own testimony.
Marris said the trials will particularly focus on what the parents did not do, and whether that makes them responsible. “That’s why this is a tricky case because a lot of it is based on omission, not action,” she said. “A lot of criminal culpability is because you did something, not because you failed to do something. That’s why this legal argument is so novel and new and actually pretty groundbreaking.”
The evidence and arguments may also differ for each parent. Jennifer and James Crumbley had been working toward a joint defense, but their cases were separated after their defense learned of a conflict between the two. According to a prosecution filing from last year, Jennifer Crumbley “placed blame” on her husband in the shooting, leading to the split.
First witnesses take the stand
On November 30, 2021, Ethan Crumbley, 15 at the time, took a gun from an unlocked container in his home, hid it in his backpack and took it out in a bathroom before opening fire on his schoolmates.
In court Thursday, the first two witnesses were educators at Oxford High School, including Molly Darnell, a teacher who was shot in the arm. In addition, Cammy Back, an employee at an Oxford store that sells guns, testified she sold a 9 mm Sig Sauer firearm to James Crumbley on November 26, 2021, with Ethan there as well.
With ATF special agent Brett Brandon on the stand, prosecutors showed a series of videos of Ethan Crumbley shooting at the gun range with his father in the months before the attack. Ethan and Jennifer Crumbley went to the gun range on November 27, and they took turns shooting, surveillance video showed. “Mom & son day testing out his new Xmas present,” she wrote afterward in an Instagram post. “My first time shooting a 9mm I hit the bullseye.”
Further, Ethan texted a video to a friend just after midnight on August 20, 2021, showing him holding and loading a pistol inside his house. “My dad left it out so I thought, ‘Why not’ lol” he wrote.
In pre-trial hearings, prosecutors introduced text messages and other evidence they said showed his parents ignored clear warning signs.
According to phone evidence, Ethan had texted a friend saying he was experiencing hallucinations and hearing voices and had asked his parents to take him to a doctor. In response, his dad gave him pills and told him to “suck it up,” and his mom laughed at him, according to the texts.
Days later, when the school notified them that Ethan had been searching online for ammo on his phone, Jennifer Crumbley texted her son: “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” according to prosecutors.
Finally, on the morning of the shooting, a teacher found a drawing from Ethan showing a gun and a person bleeding along with the phrases, “the thoughts won’t stop help me,” “blood everywhere” and “my life is useless.” His parents were called into school for a meeting, but they did not inform the school Ethan had access to a gun and declined to take him out of classes for the day.
Shortly after, Ethan took the gun out of his backpack and opened fire.
His parents have been held in jail since they were arrested on manslaughter charges days after the shooting.
What this could mean for parents
There have been several other cases in which parents were charged for shootings carried out by their children, though not one in a school mass shooting.
For example, the father of the July 4 mass shooter in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, was accused of wrongdoing for signing his son’s application for an Illinois Firearm Owners Identification card months after his son displayed concerning behavior. The father, Robert Crimo Jr., ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless conduct charges and agreed to serve 60 days in jail.
In a similar vein, the mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher at a Virginia school last year faced charges. The boy’s mother ultimately pleaded guilty to a state child neglect charge and felony charges of unlawful use of a controlled substance while possessing a firearm and making a false statement while purchasing a firearm.
Frank Vandervort, clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, said parents can be held responsible for their children’s actions, such as for truancy. But the level of severity in the case of the Crumbleys is different.
“We do impose on parents certain obligations regarding their children, to say you have a heightened degree of responsibility for what happens when your kids do things. That’s generally in the law,” he said. “The severity of the charges, I think, are what’s unique here.”
Could these cases set a new precedent for parents?
In a written opinion filed last March, a panel of judges for the state’s appellate court acknowledged the possible precedent-setting nature of these cases but called the situation unique and unusual.
“We share defendants’ concern about the potential for this decision to be applied in the future to parents whose situation viz-a-viz their child’s intentional conduct is not as closely tied together, and/or the warning signs and evidence were not as substantial as they are here,” wrote the panel.
The opinion said those concerns are “significantly diminished” by the fact that Ethan Crumbley’s actions “were reasonably foreseeable, and that is the ultimate test that must be applied.”
Vandervort similarly said he believed these cases were so unusual and uncommon that the impact would be limited.
“I don’t anticipate there’s going to be a lot of this kind of thing filed. I think this is a pretty unique case,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about shootings by teenagers as being run of the mill. Unless you’ve got really unusual factual situations, I don’t anticipate a lot of parents getting charged.”
Even so, Joey Jackson, a CNN legal analyst, said the prosecution’s broad goal in bringing these cases was to deter other parents.
“They want to deter other parents from being negligent,” he said. “They want to make sure we have diligent parents who don’t put their kids in a position where they can gain access to firearms easily.”
CNN’s Nicki Brown, Lauren del Valle, Jean Casarez and Holly Yan contributed to this report.
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