The conviction of Jennifer Crumbley has potential implications for gun-owning parents everywhere. None more so than for her husband, James Crumbley.
Jennifer Crumbley was found guilty Tuesday of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the November 30, 2021, mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, in which their son Ethan killed four students and wounded six students and a teacher.
James Crumbley faces the same charges, and he similarly pleaded not guilty. His trial is set to start on March 5.
Given the similarities in their cases, the jury’s verdict in the mother’s case could be bad news for the father’s upcoming trial, legal analysts said. But the cases do have some key factual differences, and his legal team will have the benefit of going second. Plus, this is a wholly separate trial, meaning there will be a different jury, witnesses and even evidentiary rulings.
“I don’t know that we can infer that just because Jennifer Crumbley was convicted that it is more or less likely that her husband will be convicted,” said Eve Primus, Yale Kamisar Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.
“I do think we’ve learned from Jennifer Crumbley’s case that it is possible for the prosecutor to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt that a parent can be held liable.”
Overall, the prosecution has accused James of “gross negligence” for giving a gun to his son, who was 15 at the time, failing to get the teen proper mental health treatment and failing to warn others of the risks despite warning signs.
He and his wife were both charged in December 2021 and had long planned to be tried together, but their cases were separated after their defense team learned that Jennifer planned to blame her husband.
Ethan pleaded guilty to one count of terrorism causing death, four counts of murder and 19 other charges related to the deadly rampage. He was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole. He did not testify in his mother’s trial, as his attorneys said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence.
Here’s a look at some of the similarities and differences in the facts of the parents’ cases, as well as how their legal strategies may differ.
How the facts of their cases compare
The basic facts and allegations, introduced as evidence at Jennifer’s trial, are mostly the same for each parent, though with some key differences.
Both Jennifer and James Crumbley gave their 15-year-old son a firearm as an early Christmas present and took him to the gun range multiple times.
According to Ethan’s texts and journal entries, they both were dismissive of his mental health struggles and requests for help.
They both were made aware of Ethan’s disturbing drawings on a worksheet, including a gun, a person bleeding, and the phrases “the thoughts won’t stop help me,” and “blood everywhere,” on the morning of the shooting. And they both were present at a pivotal meeting with school counselors that same day, during which they declined to take their son home from school and did not mention his new gun or his mental health issues.
Finally, after the shooting, the two fled town, sparking a manhunt that ended in a late-night raid at a Detroit warehouse.
Yet some pieces of evidence differ, particularly around firearms, his knowledge of their son’s mental issues and their personal traits.
For one, James was the parent who physically purchased the Sig Sauer 9mm firearm for their son at a gun range, according to receipts. He also was more familiar with firearms and, according to his wife, was the parent in charge of securing the home’s three weapons.
“It was more his thing, so I let him handle that,” Jennifer testified.
Speaking to CNN’s Rahel Solomon, CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said the firearm argument would be difficult for James Crumbley.
“He’s the person who purchased the weapon, he’s the person who was supposed to secure the weapon, and he’s the one who Jennifer Crumbley was blaming with respect to allowing Ethan to get access to that weapon, so it cannot look favorable for him as his trial comes forward,” Jackson said.
Secondly, the case heavily relies on what the parents knew about his mental health issues, and several pieces of evidence from Jennifer’s text messages may not apply to James. For example, Jennifer was the parent who heard from a school official the day before the shooting that Ethan had been searching on his phone for ammo. She later texted her son, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” according to text records.
How much did James know about that and other incidents, and will there be texts to prove it?
“The case lived and died on foreseeability. Was this foreseeable?” trial attorney Misty Marris said. “What somebody knows and when is going to be critical to that.”
Finally, the prosecution in Jennifer’s trial portrayed her as an inattentive mother, introducing evidence on her extramarital affair and her deep interest in her horses. The evidence of James’ personal issues presumably will be different.
How the legal strategy might differ
What will James’ defense strategy be, and how will it differ from his wife’s?
Will he, like her, take the stand to offer his side of the story? Will he, like her, blame others – the school, his spouse, his son – for the shooting, and express no regrets? Might he even take a plea deal on lesser charges to avoid trial?
These key questions are unanswerable at this point, as the attorneys in the case remain under a gag order. Mariell Lehman, his attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, his defense team likely watched Jennifer’s trial to glean insights into what worked for her and what didn’t, said Frank Vandervort, a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School.
“It’s like a football coach at halftime, making adjustments to what the other team is doing,” he said.
On the other side, the prosecution will also know what worked and what didn’t in making their case, Marris said.
In addition, there are broader societal forces that could influence how a jury sees his case. Vandervort noted mothers face higher standards than fathers regarding childcare, and there are gendered expectations of how mothers and fathers should act.
“We tend to think of mothers as caretakers of children and the ones responsible. We’ve come a long way in that regard, but there’s this underlying sexism in raising children,” he said.
Both sides will also know about comments from the jury foreperson, who offered insight into the topic that was a sticking point during deliberations: how exactly Ethan got access to the weapon.
“The thing that really hammered it home is that she was the last adult with the gun,” the juror told CNN, referring to surveillance video showing Jennifer carrying the gun case days before the attack.
Marris said that insight would be helpful to both the prosecution and the defense, as they each try to answer that question.
“They kind of know what the pressure points are,” she said. “She has her testimony about what happens with the gun. She leaves this gaping area open that we don’t know, and presumably he fills in that gap, especially if he testifies.”
CNN’s Christina Maxouris and Lauren del Valle contributed to this report.
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