Jennifer Crumbley, the mother of Oxford High School shooter Ethan Crumbley, has been found guilty of manslaughter in a historic case that demonstrates that a parent can be held criminally responsible for a mass shooting committed by their child.
The panel of 12 jurors listened to nearly two weeks of testimony from law enforcement officials, school administrators, acquaintances of Crumbley, and Crumbley herself before rending their verdict.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued that Crumbley was a neglectful mother, who didn’t pay enough attention to her son’s mental health and gave him access to a gun – while dedicating her own time to horses and an extramarital affair.
Meanwhile, the defence argued that her son “did something she could have never anticipated, fathomed, or predicted”.
Crumbley is now facing up to 60 years in prison on the charges, as each of the four counts carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison. She will be sentenced on 9 April.
What do involuntary manslaughter charges mean in Michigan?
In order to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Michigan, the prosecution had to prove at least one of two theories to jurors beyond a reasonable doubt.
The first theory relies on gross negligence. This theory, as the Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald explained to the court, means that the defendant “caused death” by acting in a grossly negligent manner.
The second theory hinges on a failure to perform a legal duty. This theory means that the defendant had a legal duty to the victim, yet “willfully neglected or refused to perform” that duty – and that this “failure to perform it was grossly negligent to human life”. Ultimately, it means that a victim’s death was directly caused by the defendant’s failure to perform this legal duty.
Judge Cheryl Matthews defined the legal duty in this case when giving the jury their instructions.
“In Michigan, a parent has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to control their minor child so as to prevent the minor child from intentionally harming others or prevent the minor child from conducting themselves in a way that creates an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to others,” she said.
If either or both of these two theories are proven, that is “sufficient to establish the crime of involuntary manslaughter,” the judge said.
“It’s not necessary that you all agree on which theory has been proven. As long as you all agree that the prosecutor has to prove at least one of those theories beyond a reasonable doubt.”
How did Crumbley meet these requirements?
The twelve jurors found Crumbley guilty on all four counts, finding that the prosecution proved that Crumbley was either grossly negligent or had failed to perform a legal duty.
Ms McDonald told jurors in her closing arguments that this is a “rare case that takes some really egregious facts. It takes the unthinkable”. Ms Crumbley “has done the unthinkable and because of that four kids have died”, she said.
The prosecutor added: “She is not somebody that used ordinary care to prevent what was reasonably foreseeable.”
Ms McDonald said there were “tragically small” things Crumbley could have done to have prevented the shooting.
The court heard how Crumbley had received texts from her son where he said he was seeing demons, how she allegedly laughed at her son when he asked to see a doctor, how she brought a third gun into the family home — which was bought for Ethan — and how she made a gun and ammunition accessible in their home to the then-15-year-old.
Despite all this, she then didn’t disclose these potential warning signs to the school when the alarm was raised about her son’s behaviour on the morning of the shooting.
“You’re the last adult to have possession of that gun,” assistant prosecutor Marc Keast said during Crumbley’s cross-examination. “You saw your son shoot the last practice round before the shooting on November 30. You saw how he stood... He knew how to use the gun.”
Crumbley replied: “Yes, he did.”
Crumbley’s defence attorney Shannon Smith took the opposite approach, arguing that the massacre committed by her client’s son could not have been predicted.
“Can parents really be responsible for everything their children do? Especially when it’s not foreseeable?” Ms Smith asked the court in her closing argument. “It was unforeseeable. No one expected this. No one could have expected this — including Mrs Crumbley.”
Has this happened before?
This case was unprecedented, as it marked the first time a parent went on trial for their alleged role in a mass shooting carried out by their child.
The case could provide a blueprint for how others, beyond the shooter, could be charged over a mass shooting.
Crumbley’s husband James Crumbley is being tried separately in March. He has also pleaded not guilty to four counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Other parents have also faced criminal charges when their child has committed a shooting.
The mother of the Virginia six-year-old who shot his first grade teacher, Deja Taylor, was sentenced to 21 months in prison in November after she pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm while being a drug user and lying on a background check about her marijuana use when she bought the gun which was later used by her son.
In November, Robert Crimo Jr, the father of the Highland Park shooter, also pleaded guilty to seven counts of misdemeanour reckless conduct after his son opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in the Illinois suburb in 2022. His son was 21 at the time of the shooting.