Jurors determining James Crumbley’s fate confront weighty issues in quest for fairness

The deadly school shooting in a tight-knit village. The recent high-profile trial that led to the conviction of the defendant’s spouse. The hot-button issue of gun ownership and the responsibilities that come with it.

A pool of potential jurors faced weighty issues during jury selection last week, and ultimately those factors will weigh on the panel that will consider the involuntary manslaughter charges against James Crumbley, the father of a teen who opened fire at a Michigan high school in 2021, killing four students.

Just last month, Crumbley’s wife, Jennifer, was convicted in the same courtroom of four counts of involuntary manslaughter – the same charges her husband faces in a separate trial. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison – the same sentence she could get.

A jury of his peers from the Oakland County community will determine James Crumbley’s fate – a fact his lawyer has said is a problem. Just after his wife’s conviction, Crumbley’s attorney made a motion to move the trial to another part of the state, arguing the jury pool is tainted, but the motion was denied.

‘I may not be the best person for this case’

Emotions ran high at times during jury selection as potential jurors were confronted with the question of whether they could be fair and impartial.

Several potential jurors were dismissed from the pool because they admitted they couldn’t be fair to the shooter’s father. One of them, a father of three, told the court news coverage about the situation would probably cloud his judgment.

“One of my daughters has a lot of nightmares about school shootings, and I just think I may not be the best person for this case,” he said.

Another man who was dismissed from the jury pool said the case upset him. He watched Jennifer Crumbley’s testimony during her trial but had to turn it off.

“The lack of remorse didn’t really sit well with me, so rather than sit there and endure that I just turned it off,” the potential juror said.

It’s difficult to see people who don’t show they value the preciousness of having children and protecting them, he told the court.

Two men dismissed from the jury pool said they were worried sitting on Crumbley’s jury would affect their standing at work.

One man said he works with several people from the Oxford community and his boss told him never to talk about the case if he made the jury.

The man was worried he could be influenced to convict Crumbley knowing how peers at work might treat him if the shooter’s father was acquitted.

The judge denied a defense request to dismiss another juror for cause when he waffled about whether he could be fair. The 25-year-old man said he wasn’t sure if he could be impartial because serving on this jury might affect his relationship with his boss, who had family members affected by the school shooting.

He said he wasn’t sure if he could set his emotions aside but later said he was overthinking it. Crumbley’s attorney used a peremptory challenge to remove him from the panel.

A defendant “should have 12 of your peers who understand you and the local norms and how things were. They stand in judgment of you and decide whether what you did deserves punishment,” Ekow Yankah, Thomas M. Cooley Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, told CNN. “But the flip side of that is, you don’t just get to commit a crime and then act as though it happened in an abstract space. In an abstract community. It happened in a real place with a real community, with real people, and that community, if they can try you fairly, has a genuine interest in holding you to account.”

Shooting guns is a hobby in the community

Jennifer Crumbley, in the same courtroom her husband is being tried, was found guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 6. - Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Jennifer Crumbley, in the same courtroom her husband is being tried, was found guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 6. - Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

This case, like the one against his wife, is set to test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting. Prosecutors aiming to expand the scope of blame in mass shootings have used an unusual and novel legal strategy by arguing the shooter’s parents are responsible for the deaths because they got him a gun and disregarded signs of his mental health issues.

Parents have previously faced liability for their child’s actions, such as with neglect or firearms charges. Still, Jennifer Crumbley’s case was the first time a parent of a school shooter was held directly responsible for the killings.

In her opening statement, defense attorney Mariell Lehman pleaded ignorance on James Crumbley’s behalf. She said he did not know his son Ethan had gained access to the weapon and did not believe there was an imminent, immediate threat of danger.

More than half of the panel of six men and nine women selected Wednesday are parents and several of them have guns in their homes or grew up with guns.

Shooting guns is a hobby for many families in the area — Oxford High School notifies students each year to leave their guns and camouflage outfits at home before they come to school, testimony in Jennifer Crumbley’s case has shown.

Whether fellow gun owners will empathize with James Crumbley remains to be seen.

Shortly after the shooting, James Crumbley told investigators the murder weapon his son used had been hidden in a case and the bullets were stored separately, according to testimony in court Friday. 

“If you and I really think that his behavior was shocking, even though we live in our community, and we know that guns are a part of everyday life, that’s a telling fact that he really did fall beneath our standards,” Yankah told CNN. “But if you and I think, ‘Well gosh, he did everything that a good responsible gun owner does and this was something you can’t control,’ then it matters that we grew up in a community where we know what good responsible gun ownership might look like.”

Owning a gun and supervising your children’s use of them might not be an issue for this jury, but several panel members — men and women — said during jury selection they believe guns should be stored securely, especially if there are kids in the house.

Hiding the weapon isn’t enough, some said, because curious kids will go snooping for it.

One mother of two who is on the panel said it would be “irresponsible” for someone with a minor child to keep guns unsecured in their home.

She also mentioned a newly passed state law requiring people to keep their firearms unloaded and locked with a locking device or stored in a lockbox in their home if a minor lives at or is likely to visit the property.

She acknowledged the law was not in effect at the time of the shooting and said she could be fair.

Other parents on the jury who don’t own guns also expressed their opinions that guns should be locked securely when a minor is in the house.

The defense wanted a change of venue

Crumbley’s attorney filed a motion last month to move the trial to another jurisdiction over concerns the jury pool in Oakland County is saturated with potential jurors who are connected to the Oxford community or closely followed news coverage about the shooting and Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction. And a venue change would be less costly than a retrial, Lehman argued.

“Even if a jury can be picked, jurors could never return home to their loved ones after acquitting Mr. Crumbley, knowing that they disappointed the many victims who want to see as many people held accountable as possible,” Lehman wrote.

Judge Cheryl Matthews denied the request ahead of trial, and Crumbley’s attorney did not renew the motion during jury selection in open court.

The bar is high to move a trial out of the community where it occurred, but it’s important to seat a jury with some degree of separation from the crimes on trial, according to Eve Brensike Primus, Yale Kamisar Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. 

“You know, the Oxford shooting entirely shook up that entire community and you’re going to have, if the community is small enough, how many degrees of separation between individuals who are on that jury and people who either lost someone or know someone who lost someone, and the emotions can be very high in that kind of circumstance and so you want to get some degree of separation from emotional decision-making,” Primus told CNN. ”You want the decision here about guilt or innocence to be made on the basis of the application of the law to the facts of the case, right, rather than ‘I’m upset because there was this tragic loss of life and someone needs to pay for it.’ So this person is on trial. I’ll just make them pay for it.”

A memorial outside Oxford High School, where four students were killed on November 30, 2021. - Scott Olson/Getty Images
A memorial outside Oxford High School, where four students were killed on November 30, 2021. - Scott Olson/Getty Images

It remains to be seen how Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction will play into the jury’s verdict in her husband’s trial.

Her attorney stressed the precedent-setting nature of the case to that panel, warning jurors they’d be setting a dangerous standard for parents in the future by convicting a mother for her son’s crimes.

“Maybe the jurors will no longer find it unimaginable that there is some huge legal leap, right, that this is a new precedent breaking case… but jurors aren’t law students who are comparing 100 cases all the time,” Yankah said.

Knowledge of the shooting and the criminal cases that followed did not disqualify jurors from the prospective pool.

The community members empaneled on James Crumbley’s jury said they were aware of the shooting and had seen some news coverage about Jennifer Crumbley’s trial.

One man on the panel said he didn’t watch Jenifer Crumbley’s trial closely but his wife did and she told him, “She didn’t believe there was any remorse.” He said he’ll be able to separate his wife’s opinions from evidence in this trial when considering James Crumbley’s fate.

Acquitting Crumbley could come down to what the jury believes he did or didn’t know about his son’s mental health and the gun storage – regardless of what his wife may have known.

“This jury will have to judge the facts about what James knew, and what James could foresee, and we’ll see if those facts come out to be similar or different,” Primus told CNN.

It’s also unclear whether James will take the stand like his wife, who testified in her own defense and, in a remarkable moment, expressed no regret for her actions.

“If he either testifies and you know, is able to show remorse in a way that appeals to the jurors or to show like a lack of knowledge in a way that appeals to them in a different way, it could result in a different circumstance,” Primus said. “Or if he doesn’t testify, and we’re left just with, you know, sort of the cold hard facts … we’ll have to see like how that plays out with the jury.”

Three alternates will be randomly selected before deliberations begin to solidify the panel of 12 that will ultimately consider the case against James Crumbley. The jury is expected to get the case by the end of the week.

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