DETROIT—Prosecutors on Tuesday defended charges against the parents of a teenager who killed four students at a Michigan school in 2021, telling an appeals court that extreme drawings and the boy’s fascination with guns should have been a wake-up call on the day of the shootings.
A three-judge panel heard arguments in a groundbreaking case that could send James and Jennifer Crumbley to prison if they’re eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the acts of Ethan Crumbley at Oxford High School.
Ethan, 16, has pleaded guilty to terrorism and murder and could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“Charging the parents of a shooter is rare and, frankly, it should be,” said Joseph Shada, an assistant prosecutor in Oakland County. “It should be reserved for an egregious set of circumstances, an extreme set of facts.”
The Crumbleys have been ordered to trial in suburban Detroit, though the case was suspended in November when the Michigan Supreme Court called a timeout and told the appeals court to take a look at the charges.
The appeals court challenged lawyers on both sides but seemed to sharply question the couple’s lawyers more.
“There were warning signs all over the place. … At the end of the day, aren’t we looking at foreseeability more than anything else to determine whether there can be criminal liability that attaches?” Judge Chris Yates said.
Judge Michael Riordan noted that James Crumbley bought the gun for Ethan, who was 15 at the time. Judge Christopher Murray said the “first thing” the father did when he heard about the shooting was “go back home and see if the gun was there.”
Earlier on the day of shooting, the Crumbleys were summoned to school for a meeting. A teacher had discovered a drawing with a gun pointing at the words: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
The school apparently didn’t demand that the Crumbleys take Ethan home. He subsequently killed four students and wounded seven other people with a gun that was in his backpack.
“There were a number of ways in which they could have exercised ordinary care to prevent this,” Shada said. “They could have checked to see if he had the gun they just gifted him days earlier. They could have simply taken him home from school. … They did none of them.”
Defense attorney Mariell Lehman said the school’s concern on the day of the shooting was that Ethan might harm himself, not others, and should not go home to an empty house.
“It was not foreseeable from the drawings on that homework that he was going to later carry out the premeditated murders of those students,” Lehman said.
Co-counsel Shannon Smith had a similar message, saying it was “nowhere on their radar.”
“I will concede that these parents made tremendously bad decisions,” Smith said. “But criminal trials for criminal culpability are not based on whether parents make the right decisions.”
Riordan said the case is being closely watched.
“There are a lot of families with kids who might not be as stable as the parents would like them to be,” the judge said. “What’s going to be the guidepost that we lay out for other cases to follow? Is it the kid’s bullied in school, comes home complaining about that — lock up all the guns? Is it the kid seems down, make sure the kid doesn’t go to school?”
Another judge this month has ruled that staff and administrators at Oxford High School cannot be sued for a mass shooting that left four students dead and seven others wounded. Oakland County Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Brennan also dismissed Oxford Community Schools from civil lawsuits related to the shooting, stating that the district and staff are protected by governmental immunity.
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