Their son committed a Michigan school shooting. Now they're fighting manslaughter charges.
DETROIT–An appeals court on Tuesday grilled attorneys for James and Jennifer Crumbley, the first parents in America charged in a mass school shooting, about how the couple treated their son before he murdered four students and injured seven others in the November 2021 shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan.
The court focused on why they bought him a gun despite his mental health troubles and why they didn’t take him home after seeing his note that read: “The thoughts won’t stop, help me.”
“There were warning signs all over the place,” Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Christopher Yates said during a one-hour hearing.
The appeals court is trying to decide if the Crumbleys should stand trial on involuntary manslaughter charges for the actions of their son, Ethan Crumbley, who pleaded guilty to murder charges last year.
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Judges question Crumbley parents' choices
The Michigan Supreme Court last year ordered the appeals court to hear the case at the request of the Crumbleys, who have long maintained they had no idea their son would carry out a mass school shooting, and want the charges thrown out.
The court Tuesday appeared focused on the Crumbleys’ actions – and inactions – noting the parents had bought their son the gun that was used in the shooting, despite knowing he was struggling mentally and hallucinating months earlier.
Judges also questioned why the parents:
Didn’t bring their son home from school when they were summoned over a troubling drawing he had made in math class on the morning of the shooting
Didn’t hug him in the counselor’s office when they were called in over the violent drawing
Why they didn’t check his backpack that day
The prosecution argues that the key issue in this case is foreseeability, that the Crumbleys knew their son had access to a gun and was struggling mentally. And that the parents, more than anyone else, could have prevented the massacre had the parents taken their son home, or at least told the school that he had access to a gun.
But they failed to do so, and should therefore be held criminally responsible, the prosecutor argued.
Dad 'told him to take some pills and suck it up'
"These parents knew he had reported hallucinations... (and) had asked to go to the doctor," Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Joseph Shada argued. "They did nothing.”
Instead, Shada stressed, his dad “told him to take some pills and suck it up” while his mom laughed at him. Months later, he said, they bought him what he wanted more than anything else.
“Instead of getting him help, they bought him a gun,” Shada said. “They knew he was fascinated with guns … he had targets on his bedroom wall.”
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Parents weren't involved in the planning, defense lawyer argues
Lawyers for the Crumbleys argue the prosecution is overreaching in trying to hold the parents responsible for their son’s actions.
“I will concede that these parents made tremendously bad decisions ... but criminal trials are not based on whether parents made the right decisions or did the right things,” defense attorney Shannon Smith argued, stressing the case will set a dangerous precedent for parents everywhere if allowed to proceed.
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But the liability in this case rests with the son, not the parents, Smith argued.
“The thing they did not do is plot this murder, hold the gun and shoot the kids,” said Smith, who also noted that Ethan Crumbley, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to all charges.
“We have a person who put together this plan,” Smith said.
But that’s not what’s being charged here, Smith noted, later noting the facts of this case align more with a case involving the termination of parental rights.
Concerns about precedent of charging parents
“At the end of the day, it truly wasn’t foreseeable that (Ethan) was going to take this gun and shoot people," Smith said. "If they did foresee their child doing that, there would be so many things done.”
At issue in this case is whether the Crumbleys acted with gross negligence, and whether they had a legal duty to inform the school that their son had access to a gun.
The defense argues no such legal duty exists, and that holding the parents criminally responsible for the actions of their son sets a dangerous precedent, in that parents could be charged for any crime carried out by their child.
“We can’t set precedent? Is that what you're saying?” Judge Michael Riordan asked.
The defense answered no, but argued that the facts of this case do not warrant setting a precedent.
“Don’t parents have a legal duty for the welfare of their children?” one judge asked.
Smith responded: “Yes, but that doesn’t extend to every action that they encounter.”
Families of victims want parents tried
Parents of some of Oxford High student victims were at a news conference with attorney Ven Johnson and said James and Jennifer Crumbley should be among those held accountable.
"Hell, yeah," said Buck Myre, father of Tate Myre, who was killed. "They bought a gun for their kid, right? And he used it to murder our kids. Absolutely."
"It's crazy. Think about this, there's all this going on and all this legal talk. Four kids were murdered, and everybody gets to throw their hands up in the air."
The Court of Appeals will issue its decision at a later date.
Tresa Baldas: email@example.com Christina Hall contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Oxford High School shooter's parents appear in court: Five takeaways