- A Michigan prosecutor charged the parents of a school-shooting suspect in a deadly tragedy last week.
- The charges are rare, legal experts say, but the evidence in this case appears to be substantial.
- Two former prosecutors told Insider that the chance of the parents being convicted is high.
Three days after 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley was charged in the Oxford High School shooting that left four students dead and seven others injured, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald announced a rare move to charge Ethan’s parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley in the massacre as well.
Authorities arrested Ethan, a sophomore at Oxford High School, on November 30 in connection to the deadly shooting. The Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office charged him with four counts of first-degree murder; one count of terrorism causing death; seven counts of assault with intent to murder; and 12 counts of felony firearm possession.
His parents face four charges of involuntary manslaughter, which, under Michigan law, requires the government to prove the defendants created a situation that had an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily injury.
Despite the shocking number of school shootings in the US, additional charges targeting people other than the shooting suspect are largely unprecedented, if not extremely rare, legal experts told Insider.
But two former federal prosecutors said the charges brought against Jennifer and James, though uncommon, are likely to stick, given the circumstances leading up to the Tuesday tragedy.
“The evidence is so strong here,” Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and the president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, told Insider. “I would expect guilty verdicts.”
Prosecutors released a timeline of disturbing evidence leading up to the shooting
On the morning of November 26, James Crumbley took Ethan shopping on Black Friday and purchased the 9mm handgun that authorities said was used in the shooting. The next day, Jennifer said she and Ethan were “testing out his new Christmas present” in a social media post, according to officials.
Ethan later posted a photo of himself holding the gun captioned, “Just got my new baby today SIGSaur 9mm.”
On November 29, a teacher at Oxford High School notified school officials after witnessing Ethan using his cellphone to search for ammunition. The school contacted Jennifer and left a voicemail, but she never returned their call, authorities said.
She later sent a text message to Ethan that read: “Lol I’m not mad at you, you have to learn not to get caught,” according to investigators.
On November 30, the morning of the shooting, another teacher found a note in Ethan’s desk, which included a picture of a semi-automatic handgun and the words “the thoughts won’t stop, help me” and “blood everywhere.” The drawing included a person who appeared to have been shot accompanied by a laughing emoji and the words “my life is useless.”
School officials removed him from class and scheduled an in-person meeting with his parents. Jennifer and James Crumbley were shown the drawing and told they had to get Ethan counseling within 48 hours. The couple resisted officials’ suggestion that their son be removed from class that day and insisted he returned to class, according to prosecutors.
Later that afternoon, authorities said Ethan emerged from a bathroom and began shooting. When news broke of an active shooter, Jennifer texted her son, saying, “Ethan don’t do it.” Meanwhile, James called 911 and reported a missing gun from his house and said he believed his son might be the shooter.
According to prosecutors, the new gun had been stored in an unlocked drawer in Jennifer and James’ bedroom.
On Friday, after McDonald announced charges against the Crumbleys, the couple disappeared, skipping their scheduled arraignment. Police classified them as fugitives and the US Marshals office joined the search. Jennifer and James were eventually arrested early Saturday morning in the basement of a Detroit building.
Mounting detailed evidence against the Crumbleys will likely aid the prosecution in securing convictions, Robert A. Sanders, a former federal prosecutor and chair of the national security department at the University of New Haven, told Insider.
“[The Crumbleys] have all this knowledge, and they don’t tell anybody that [Ethan] has ready access to a firearm,” Sanders said. “The argument is that they could be held to a duty based on their parental responsibility to act before their child did.”
Experts say there is no legal precedent for charging the parents of a suspected school shooter
The only reason it happened in this instance, according to Sanders and Rahmani, is because the evidence is so stacked against the Crumbleys.
“This is so rare. Most parents don’t act like this,” Rahmani said. “Most parents aren’t arming children.”
When she announced the charges against the parents, lead prosecutor McDonald said the additional charges were meant to hold the people who helped contribute to the tragedy responsible. But the attorney added that the move was also meant to send a message that gun owners have a responsibility to safeguard their weapons.
“This conduct goes far beyond simple negligence.” Rahmani said, comparing the Crumbleys’ action and inaction to certain situations as “playing Russian Roulette” with children’s lives.
Another factor that could help the prosecution’s case is the fact that the Crumbleys appeared to flee following the announcement of their indictment. Prosecutors can introduce flight as evidence of guilt, arguing the couple chose to run because they knew they were guilty, Rahmani said.
“Their individual actions stack up against them,” Sanders added.
As such, both experts said the likelihood of conviction is strong.
“I think it’s a very straightforward manslaughter case,” Rahmani said. “No different from me texting and driving while under the influence and killing someone.”
The charge carries a possible 15-year sentence in Michigan, and Rahmani said he would expect a possible sentence to fall on the higher end of guidelines.
“They obstructed justice by fleeing,” Rahmani said. “Their conduct was just so egregious.”
But that doesn’t mean a conviction is guaranteed
“Factually and legally this is a strong case,” Rahmani said. “But anytime you have anything that may throw a political wrench into our criminal justice system or jury process, people have very strong feelings.”
One such challenge the prosecution could potentially face in trying to convict the Crumbleys is “America’s Second Amendment nuttiness,” Sanders said.
Gun rights and responsibility is a never-ending hot-button issue in the US, and experts said some jurors could be resistant to seeing the Crumbleys’ conduct surrounding the alleged weapon as wrong.
Michigan does not have laws related to safe gun storage, which could hurt the prosecution’s case with possible gun-owning members of a jury, who believe no one but the shooter bears responsibility for the tragedy.
Sanders said supporters of the Second Amendment might view the charges against the Crumbleys as the first step in a slippery slope leading to curtailed gun rights.
But there is a way to combat that potential problem, according to Rahmani.
“That’s where the prosecutors have to … do a very good job in jury selection in weeding out those types of jurors,” he said.
Experts aren’t sure if the charges against the Crumbleys could set a new precedent going forward
The circumstances in this case are so singular and unlikely to be replicated in such fashion again, Rahmani said.
“It really is the perfect storm of bad evidence for the Crumbleys,” he added.
Sanders is also skeptical of any large-scale change, especially given the failure of past tragedies to set new precedents when it comes to mass shootings.
“When little babies in Newtown were killed, and four times as many were killed in [Parkland], Florida, and adults who happened to be gay were killed in a Florida nightclub,” Sanders said, “well, we can’t get gun law changes in and around those events, so I don’t know if this one will.”