Jennifer Crumbley’s case hinges on whether she “willfully” ignored her son’s tendency to commit mass murder

A Michigan jury today began considering whether Jennifer Crumbley should be held criminally responsible for the murders committed by her 15-year-old son, Ethan, at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021. Prosecutors presented considerable evidence to strengthen the impression that Crumbley and her husband, James Crumbley, who will be tried separately, acted negligently, notably by giving Ethan unsupervised access to the SIG Sauer 9mm pistol that he used to kill four students. But the charges against Jennifer Crumbley – four counts of involuntary manslaughter, each punishable by up to 15 years in prison – require more than that: proof beyond a reasonable doubt that she “willfully ignores[ed] the results to others that may result from an act or inaction.”

Prosecutors needed to prove that Crumbley should have recognized that Ethan was intent on committing mass murder and that he could have prevented that outcome through “ordinary care.” But the evidence on this point seems ambiguous at best. “Even in the first hours after the shooting, during the Crumbleys’ first recorded interview with police, the parents seemed stunned to discover that their child was suffering from something beyond sadness,” notes Megan Stack, who covered the trial. New York Times opinion article published last Thursday.

The gun, which Ethan’s father bought him the day after Thanksgiving as an early Christmas present, “appears to have been a misguided effort to cheer him up,” Stack says. Jennifer Crumbley” celebrated by taking [Ethan] to a shooting range, an outing she called a ‘mom-and-son party.'” Although Stack describes the gift as “ruinously irresponsible,” that doesn’t mean Ethan’s mother understood that her son was capable of the horrific crime committed four days after receiving the gun.

James Crumbley described his son as “a perfect boy” who never got into trouble, and this impression was shared by teachers and administrators at his school. “There is no indication that he fought with other students, frightened his teachers, or acted aggressively in class,” Stack writes. “Kristy Gibson-Marshall, assistant principal of Oxford High School, testified to her shock at seeing him carry the gun during the attack. She was so stunned, she told the jury, that she couldn’t process what she was seeing.”

Gibson-Marshall testified that it “just didn’t seem right that it was him.” She initially “didn’t think he could be the killer” because “it seemed so strange that it was him.” She remembered asking him, “Dude, are you okay? What’s going on?” When he “didn’t answer me and looked away,” Gibson-Marshall said, “that’s when I knew it was him, that he was the killer.”

The day before the shooting, a teacher noticed Ethan looking for ammunition on his phone during class. He told a school counselor that “shooting sports are a family hobby.” Jennifer Crumbley was not alarmed by the incident. “LOL I’m not mad at you,” she wrote to him. “You have to learn not to get caught.”

On the day of the shooting, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said, Ethan and his parents met with school counselors after a teacher found “a note on Ethan’s desk” that included “a drawing of a semi-automatic pistol , pointing to the words: ‘The thoughts don’t stop. Help me.'” There was also “a drawing of a bullet, with the following words above the bullet: ‘Blood everywhere.'” In the middle was “the drawing of a person who appears to have been hit by a bullet.” twice and [is] bloody” and “under that picture is a drawing of a laughing emoji.” Ethan also wrote “my life is useless” and “the world is dead.”

Ethan claimed that he was developing a video game and that the images were part of that process. While waiting for his parents to arrive, Superintendent Tim Throne said after the shooting, Ethan expressed concern about missing homework and “requested his science homework, which he then worked on while in the office.” Throne stressed that school officials did not perceive Ethan as a threat to others: “The counselors never believed that the student could harm others based on his behavior, his responses and his demeanor, which seemed calm “.

Shawn Hopkins, a school counselor, wanted Ethan’s parents to seek help from a therapist, warning that the teen may pose a danger to himself and should not be left alone. They chose to leave him at school, a decision that seems completely ill-advised in retrospect. But as Stack notes, “both parents had to work that afternoon, and their son didn’t like skipping school, so keeping him in class the rest of the day might have seemed like the best option.” Jennifer Crumbley testified that she “gave her husband the list of therapists at the school” and “asked him to start making phone calls.”

School officials allowed Ethan to return to class, underscoring their belief that he was not inclined to hurt anyone but himself. By then, Ethan had the loaded gun in his backpack, which would have been discovered if anyone had bothered to look inside him.

Prosecutors argued that Jennifer Crumbley was in a better position than school officials to recognize how deeply troubled her son was. They noted a text exchange in which she had suggested to her mother that their house was haunted, perhaps by a demon. Crumbley testified that she perceived that comment as joking, since she and her son had previously joked about the possibility that the house was haunted.

Prosecutors also cited a diary in which Ethan “had written about a plan to cause bloodshed,” accompanied by drawings of firearms. “My parents won’t listen to me about getting help or a therapist,” he wrote. But her mother said she had never seen the diary or heard her son request psychotherapy.

Crumbley also said that safekeeping of the gun was her husband’s responsibility, as he was more familiar with firearms. “I just didn’t feel comfortable being responsible for it,” she testified. “It was more of her thing, so I let him take care of it. I didn’t feel comfortable putting the lock thing on.”

The evidence presented at trial certainly didn’t make Jennifer Crumbley look like a model parent. Prosecutors argued that she was inattentive, distracted by an extramarital affair and her expensive hobby of horse riding. But it’s not at all clear whether her conduct amounted to the kind of “gross negligence” required by manslaughter charges.

To sentence Crumbley, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Matthews told jurors before they began their deliberations that they “must decide that the killer’s actions were reasonably foreseeable,” The Detroit News Notes. “They must establish that Crumbley knew of the danger his son posed to others and that, had he used standard care, the deaths could have been avoided.”

“It is not enough that the defendant’s acts made it possible for the crime to occur,” Matthews said. “You must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the deaths were a natural or reasonable result of the defendant’s acts.”

The Oxford High School shooting “may have been predictable in an abstract sense,” Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, noted in an article. National review after McDonald accused the Crumbleys of manslaughter. But “it was certainly not foreseen in concrete reality”. Yet manslaughter charges require jurors to conclude that Jennifer Crumbley “knew the danger her son posed to others.”

The Crumbleys clearly did not store the gun responsibly. But at the time of the shooting, Michigan had no laws requiring the safe storage of firearms. In the absence of such an option, McCarthy argued, McDonald’s relied on an inadequate statute. Since Michigan lawmakers “refused to criminalize the conduct of Crumbley’s parents,” he wrote, prosecutors were “attempting in the heat of the moment to criminalize the conduct itself.”

During her closing statement on Friday, Jennifer Crumbley’s attorney, Shannon Smith, argued that the prosecution, “one of the first of its kind,” was an attempt to criminalize parenting decisions that have disastrous but unanticipated results. “This case,” she said, “is very dangerous for parents out there.”

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