In 2021, one of the more deadly school shootings in recent memory took place at Oxford High School in Michigan. The shooter was later revealed to be a student there named Ethan Crumbley. Last month, Crumbley was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to murder and terrorism charges, among other things. So you might think that the case is wrapped up, but it’s not. Yesterday, jury selection began in a trial for his mother, Jennifer Crumbley. Her husband James will face his own trial in March. Both are being charged with involuntary manslaughter, despite having had no information about their son’s intentions to go on a shooting spree. These are notable cases that will test the limits of parental accountability for their minor children’s actions. (Guardian)
Jury selection began on Tuesday in the trial of the mother of a teenager who carried out a deadly mass shooting at his school on involuntary manslaughter charges in an unusual effort to pin criminal responsibility on the shooter’s parents for the deaths of four students.
Jennifer and James Crumbley are not accused of knowing their son planned to kill fellow students at Oxford high school in 2021. But prosecutors said they made a gun accessible to Ethan Crumbley, ignored his mental health needs and declined to take him home when confronted with his violent drawings at school on the day of the attack.
Involuntary manslaughter has been “well-defined for ages, and its elements are definite and plain: gross negligence causing death”, the assistant prosecutor Joseph Shada said in a court filing.
I would normally reject this prosecution of the parents because in any shooting, the person who pulls the trigger is the responsible party. That may still prove to be the case here, but the prosecutors have raised a number of disturbing points. There was clearly something going very wrong in Ethan Crumbley’s life and the school had been attempting to alert the parents to the situation.
The father had taken Ethan to a licensed gun dealer four days before the shooting and purchased a handgun. The mother took him to a firing range for practice. On the day of the shooting, Ethan had drawn “violent images” on a school paper along with a cryptic message saying, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
The parents were called to school and advised to intervene, but they declined and left the campus after roughly 30 minutes, leaving Ethan at the school. We all know what happened next. So there were clearly many red flags suggesting that something was amiss. But Ethan even told a judge that he never let his parents know what he was doing and it wasn’t their fault. So were those red flags enough to justify charging the parents with manslaughter and potentially being sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison themselves?
Many school children scribble disturbing images or thoughts, but not all of them go on shooting sprees. A more valid question might be whether or not they had taken sufficient precautions to ensure their weapons weren’t accessible at home. But even in that case, it still seems like a major leap from negligence to manslaughter. The court seems to be assuming that the parents should have known or at least suspected something. The Crumbleys’ attorney argues that “the truth of the matter is one cannot predict the unimaginable.”
We’ll have to see what two different juries have to say about this. The fact that there will be two trials adds another strange twist to the situation. What if one parent is found guilty and the other isn’t convicted? It seems unlikely that one could be guilty but not the other given that they were both involved with activities related to Ethan and the firearm and both had been at the school on the day of the shooting. Something clearly went terribly wrong in their home, but this just doesn’t feel like a just way to bring a resolution to the tragedy.