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‘Instead of getting him help, they bought him a gun’: Prosecutors urge appeals court judges to let charges stand against parents of Michigan school shooter Ethan Crumbley

James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley appear in mugshots taken by the Oakland County Jail in Michigan.

James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley appear in mugshots taken by the Oakland County Jail in Michigan.

Lawyers for the parents of the teenage Michigan high school student who killed four teenagers say that allowing prosecutors to pursue manslaughter charges against their clients will put parents statewide at risk of being responsible for their children’s criminal acts.

At a hearing before a three-judge panel of Michigan Court of Appeals judges on Tuesday, defense attorneys for James and Jennifer Crumbley argued that their clients shouldn’t be held criminally liable for their son Ethan Crumbley’s “free and deliberate” attack on his fellow students at Oxford High School in November 2021. The parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter after Ethan Crumbley, then 15, shot and killed four of his schoolmates using a gun given to him by his parents days earlier.

Hours before the mass shooting, James and Jennifer Crumbley had been called to the school after a teacher discovered disturbing drawings by Ethan Crumbley in a math workbook. They eventually left — without their son — after meeting with school officials and Ethan Crumbley himself.

Within hours, Crumbley had opened fire in the hallway and into classrooms, killing students Tate Myre, 16 Hana St. Juliana, 14, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and Justin Shilling, 17.

After arrest warrants were issued for the parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley appeared to have attempted to evade apprehension by the police but were eventually found hiding in a building near downtown Detroit, around 30 minutes away from Oakland.

They are now challenging the February 2022 decision by trial judge Kwame Rowe that there is enough evidence to proceed with the criminal case. At Tuesday’s hearing, lawyers for Crumbley’s parents say that the boy — and only the boy — is responsible for the students’ deaths.

“Here, E.C. planned, carried out, and deliberately intended to cause the deaths of the individuals in this case,” attorney Mariell R. Lehman, representing James Crumbley, told Judges Christopher Murray, Michael Riordan, and Christopher Yates.

Because Ethan Crumbley, at age 16, is still a minor, he was supposed to be identified only by his initials during Tuesday’s hearing, although the lawyers occasionally slipped and called him by his full name.

Both Lehman and attorney Shannon Smith, who represents Jennifer Crumbley, argued that prosecutors did not satisfy the “probable cause” requirement linking the parents’ inaction to the victims’ deaths.

“Just having a child or a minor who may engage in strange or questionable behavior doesn’t necessarily mean that parents can foresee” serious criminal activity, Lehman argued.

“If that was all this case was about, you might be right,” Murray replied. “But that’s not all there is.”

Prosecutors have alleged that the Crumbleys knew their son was troubled months before the shooting.

Lehman emphasized that even though the parents went to school that day after the teacher had spotted their son’s disturbing drawings, the concern at the time was “more for E.C.’s well-being.” School officials weren’t concerned that he would hurt or kill other students, Lehman said, adding that the decision was made that “it was best that he be around other people and that he not be alone.”

Much of the hearing centered around the causal link between the Crumbley parents’ actions — or inaction — toward their son and the four victims’ deaths.

“But for them not taking him out of the school that day, the event wouldn’t have happened,” Murray said. Lehman responded that the “but for” analysis could be “extended to well beyond where it should be” to potentially nonsensical conclusions, noting that “but for” Ethan Crumbley existing at all, the four students would still be alive.

“When a person commits a free and deliberate shooting of a victim, they become the proximate cause of the victim’s death,” Jennifer Crumbley’s defense attorney Shannon Smith argued to the judges.

“We’re talking about a 16-year-old who wrote elaborate and deliberate plans in a journal that only he knew about,” Smith said. “We’re talking about a person who had thoughts and problems, whether people knew about them or not, we had a person who put together this plan of who he was going to shoot, what order he was going to do it in, [and] how he was going to do it.”

Smith noted that if the parents were truly responsible for Ethan Crumbley’s actions, they should have been charged with aiding and abetting the murders.

The judges asked Smith to explain why the parents didn’t look inside their son’s backpack during the meeting that day, knowing that they had gifted him the gun days earlier.

“They just left, didn’t hug him, they just left for the day,” Yates said.

“The counselor was worried that he might have been suicidal,” Riordan added. “At that point wouldn’t that warrant looking in the backpack, if he’s suicidal and has access to a gun?”

Smith said that the Crumbleys’ actions are being filtered through the lens of knowing what followed.

“Anything else they could have done, get him into therapy sooner, look in his backpack […] those are all things in hindsight parents always wish they had done,” she said. “The problem is extending liability for failure to open a backpack or a failure to give a hug ends up opening endless liability for parents across the state.”

Murray agreed with Smith that the “slippery slope” of liability is a “valid concern.”

Smith conceded that “these parents made tremendously bad decisions” and that they were “ill-equipped to handle various factors in this case,” but that criminal culpability cannot be based on that.

Riordan asked Smith if the Crumbleys had a legal duty to the students in Ethan Crumbley’s class. Smith said that they did not.

“As a parent, I don’t owe a legal duty to every kid at my four kids’ schools,” she said. “I don’t owe a legal duty to every child on the street.”

Riordan then asked if parents have a legal duty to their own child if they appeared to be, for example, suicidal. Smith acknowledged that parents do have that legal duty, but “that does not extend to the welfare of their children in every action they have with every person they could encounter on this earth.”

Riordan pressed Smith on why the Crumbleys didn’t look in their son’s backpack that day. Smith said that there is no legal duty for them to have done so.

“I’m sure the parents wish they would have looked in that bag,” Smith said, noting that school personnel also didn’t check the bag, despite having “physical possession of that bag” and commenting about how heavy it was.

While the judges seemed skeptical about the defense lawyers’ arguments that neither parent bears any criminal liability for Ethan Crumbley’s actions, they also challenged prosecutor Joseph Shada to explain the legal duty that the Crumbleys, as parents, owed, and to whom.

“Some of the text messages between E.C. and his friend were very enlightening as to what was going on in E.C.’s mind, but there is no evidence that either one of the defendants was aware of those,” Murray said, referring to messages in which Crumbley told a friend that he was having hallucinations and had asked his parents for help.

Shada replied that the text messages were evidence that Ethan Crumbley did tell his parents that he was struggling with his mental health.

“James Crumbley gave him some pills and told him to suck it up, and Jennifer Crumbley laughed at him,” Shada said, noting that the Crumbleys knew their son’s best friend had recently moved and that he was troubled. “Instead of getting him help, they told him to suck it up, laughed at him.”

“Instead of getting him help, they bought him a gun,” Shada added.

Murray pressed Shada on the potentially unintended consequences of holding the Crumbleys criminally liable.

“There’s nothing wrong with being interested in guns or letting children shoot,” Murray said, noting that organizations offer “shooting classes” for minors. “A lot of families are not as stable as they should be […] if a bullied kid comes home, [should they say] ‘Lock up all the guns?’ If the kid seems down, ‘Make sure the kid doesn’t go to school?'”

Shada said that the Crumbleys had enough information to know that their son was “in crisis” and should have taken “reasonable care” to keep him and others safe.

“They simply could have taken him home, they could have checked to see if he had the gun on him that they purchased for him days earlier, or they could have adequately secured it in the first place,” Shada said. “They had the ability to prevent it while using ordinary care.”

The appeals court will issue its ruling at a later date.

Crumbley pleaded guilty in October to all the criminal charges against him, including murder and terrorism. There was no plea deal and he has not yet been sentenced. A judge is expected to rule on whether Crumbley can be sentenced to life behind bars later this month.

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