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Both James and Jennifer Crumbley were found guilty. But they took different paths to get there

Of the 15 witnesses who testified for the prosecution in James Crumbley’s manslaughter trial, all but one had already testified in his wife’s trial last month.

In each trial, prosecutors used testimony from the same shooting survivors, police investigators and school employees to prove that each parent was “grossly negligent” in allowing their teenage son, Ethan, to have a gun and ignoring signs of his spiraling mental health.

That witness overlap reflects how similar the two trials were overall. Both parents were convicted on four counts of involuntary manslaughter for their roles in their son’s mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan on November 30, 2021. They face up to 15 years in prison and are set to be sentenced next month.

Despite those similarities, the trials unfolded quite differently.

The case against Jennifer focused heavily on her personal life, digging into her voluminous text messages, her relationship with her son and even her extramarital affair. In contrast, the case against James largely avoided his private affairs but more closely examined how he secured the family’s firearms.

Speaking to CNN’s Jean Casarez, Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney Karen McDonald acknowledged the evidence was quite different between the two trials.

“It’s a rare, rare, rare circumstance where you have a trial and then another one, so close in time, so similar, around the same set of facts,” McDonald said. “So we learned some things in the first trial, but they were just very different. There were different lawyers, there was different evidence.”

In particular, the differences were the result of several factors: Each parent’s legal defense strategy, the amount of digital evidence and the prosecution’s differing focus on firearms and mental health.

The legal defense strategy

The major difference in the trials was Jennifer Crumbley’s decision to testify in her own defense, while James Crumbley did not.

On the stand, Jennifer Crumbley pushed blame onto her son, her husband and the school, and she expressed no regret for her actions. “I’ve asked myself if I would have done anything differently, and I wouldn’t have,” she testified.

James Crumbley, meanwhile, declined to testify. “It is my decision to remain silent,” he said in court.

The two decisions were a reflection of their broader legal defense strategies.

A pretrial ruling in Jennifer Crumbley’s trial had barred both sides from bringing up anything about her extramarital affair with a local firefighter. But midway through her trial, Jennifer waived the ruling and agreed to allow that evidence, saying she trusted her attorney’s recommended strategy change.

“Her life is more important than her dignity in terms of – she had an affair, lots of people have affairs,” defense attorney Shannon Smith told the court. “I mean, the bottom line is, at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean you know your kid is a school shooter.”

“This is not a trial about her morality, so I want to make sure that we stick to the elements of the case and what you’re required to prove, which is not that she’s a bad person,” Judge Cheryl Matthews said. “That’s not what we’re here about.”

James Crumbley’s attorney Mariell Lehman sought to limit the evidence allowed into his case. In closing arguments, she argued there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.

“You heard no testimony and you saw no evidence that James had any knowledge that his son was a danger to anyone,” she said.

Smith released a statement Thursday saying she and Jennifer Crumbley will not be doing interviews at this time. “We believe the victims, their families, and the community need and deserve the space and time to begin healing from this tragedy,” Smith said.

Lehman did not respond to a request for comment.

The amount of digital evidence

Another major difference between the two trials was that Jennifer provided a lengthy digital trail of her thoughts and feelings, while James did not. This contrast meant the jury heard more about her personal life than about his.

As revealed at her trial, Jennifer was in text conversations with several people before, during and after the shooting, providing a running commentary of her thoughts and actions.

She messaged her boss as she realized their gun was missing and her son was the shooter, then asked her boss not to fire her. “I need my job,” she wrote. “Please don’t judge me for what my son did.”

She texted the owner of a horse farm on the morning of the shooting that her son was “having a hard time” and “can’t be left alone,” and then later sent her reaction to the attack. “I wish we had warnings.. Something,” Jennifer Crumbley wrote.

She also messaged her extramarital lover after the shooting, reflecting on her own parenting skills. “I failed as a parent,” she wrote in a message. “I failed miserably.”

Other online posts of hers furthered the prosecution’s case. Days before the attack, she posted on her social media about her and Ethan’s trip to the gun range and his new SIG Sauer 9mm firearm. “Mom & son day testing out his new Xmas present,” she wrote in the post, alongside a photo of the gun.

Further, the day before the shooting, a teacher left Jennifer Crumbley a voicemail saying that her son had been looking at bullets on his phone in class. “Lol I’m not mad you have to learn not to get caught,” she wrote to her son in a text.

Firearms v. mental health

The cable lock that was sold with the SIG Sauer 9mm firearm was still in its plastic wrapping in the Crumbley home, a detective testified. - Pool/WWJ/WXYZ
The cable lock that was sold with the SIG Sauer 9mm firearm was still in its plastic wrapping in the Crumbley home, a detective testified. - Pool/WWJ/WXYZ

The trials were also different in their focuses. Jennifer’s trial examined more closely her knowledge of her son’s mental health issues, while James’ trial spotlighted his firearm safety practices.

A number of Jennifer’s text exchanges with her son featured prominently in her trial as prosecutors sought to show she knew about his mental health troubles but did not address them.

In one exchange in March 2021, she texted her husband she was going to “get drunk and ride my horse,” according to text records. That night, her son messaged her about a demon throwing objects at the house, and she responded an hour later with a 19-second long phone call, records show. In another instance, Ethan sent a series of texts about his hallucinations, but she did not call or text him until the next day, and evidence showed the parents were again at the horse barn, a detective said.

On the stand, Jennifer Crumbley testified she believed these texts were Ethan “messing around” as part of an ongoing joke about their house being haunted.

Her trial focused less on the firearms. She testified they were her husband’s responsibility. “I just didn’t feel comfortable being in charge of that. It was more his thing, so I let him handle that,” she said.

In contrast, James Crumbley’s trial more closely focused on how he stored the three firearms in the home.

In August 2021, Ethan sent a video to his friend of him handling and loading a gun just after midnight. “My dad left it out so I thought. ‘Why not’ lol,” he wrote, according to messages shown in court. Both of his parents were at home around that time, forensic analyst Edward Wagrowski testified.

Further, James purchased the SIG Sauer 9mm firearm for his son on Black Friday 2021, and he later told investigators he hid it in a case in his armoire, with the bullets hidden in a different spot under some jeans. A detective said a cable lock sold with the SIG Sauer was found still in its plastic packaging.

The defense questioned whether a different locking mechanism may have been used to secure the firearm, but no other firearm locking mechanisms were found in the home.

Finally, two other firearms in the home – a .22-caliber Derringer and a .22-caliber KelTec – were locked in a gun safe in the parents’ bedroom dresser, but the combination to unlock the safe was “0-0-0,” the default factory setting, the detective testified.

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