‘Gross negligence’: why a parent like James Crumbley can be found guilty for their child’s crimes

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Thaddeus Hoffmeister, Professor of Law, University of Dayton

In a case of what prosecutors described as “gross negligence,” a Michigan jury convicted James Crumbley on charges of involuntary manslaughter for his role in his son’s deadly rampage at Oxford High School nearly three years ago.

Crumbley’s conviction follows the similar fate of his wife, Jennifer Crumbley, who was convicted on Feb. 6, 2024, for her role in the slayings that left four high school teenagers dead and another seven injured.

Both face a maximum prison sentence of 60 years and fines up to US$30,000.

In December 2023, their son, Ethan Crumbley, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting in which he killed four people and wounded seven others.

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Were the parents responsible?

Many were surprised when the Crumbleys were charged for their alleged role in the tragedy.

Criminal law, unlike civil law, is less likely to hold defendants liable for the actions of a third party, even if that third party is the defendant’s child. This is because in criminal law defendants face incarceration and the associated stigma that comes with a conviction.

Ethan Crumbley, as seen in a police mug shot.
Ethan Crumbley was convicted of fatally shooting four students at Oxford High School. Photo by Oakland County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images

In the rare instances that parents of school shooters are prosecuted, they were normally charged with crimes such as child abuse, child neglect and the failure to properly secure a firearm. The charge lodged against the Crumbleys, involuntary manslaughter, also known as gross negligent homicide, was even more uncommon.

But it’s not without precedent.

In 2000, Jamelle James, a Michigan resident, pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter for leaving his handgun in a shoebox in his bedroom. At the time, James lived in an apartment that prosecutors described as a “flophouse” that was shared with a number of people, including two young children.

A 6-year-old boy – James’ nephew – was temporarily living in the apartment and discovered the gun, brought it to school and fatally shot his first grade classmate Kayla Rolland. James spent more than two years in prison before he was released on probation.

Prosecutors claimed that James’ conduct was “grossly negligent” and “so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.”

Arguably, leaving an unsecured gun around very young children demonstrated James’ gross negligence.

‘Egregious’ behavior

One of the key questions that faced jurors in the Crumbley case was whether the parents knew that a school shooting would occur or had reckless disregard of this fact. To prove the parents’ gross negligence, the prosecution relied on a series of alleged facts.

Among the most central facts was that the Crumbleys bought their son the handgun as a Christmas present and later took him to target practice.

Neither parent informed the school that they had bought the gun and that their son had access to it.

A white woman sits behind a desk while a jury deliberates her fate in another room.
Jennifer Crumbley awaits the jury decision during her trial on Feb. 6, 2024. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

After being told that her son was searching for ammo on his phone at school, Jennifer Crumbley told her son via text message not to get caught: “LOL I’m not mad. You have to learn not to get caught.”

Neither of the parents opted to remove their son from school after being told that a teacher found a disturbing drawing of a bloody figure in his desk.

Finally, the gun was unsecured.

James Crumbley was “not on trial for what his son did,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said during closing arguments on Feb. 13, 2024. Rather, he was on trial for “what he did and what he didn’t do.”

Unlike his wife, Crumbley declined to testify. “It is my decision to remain silent,” he said.

His defense lawyers presented only one witness, Crumbley’s sister, Karen. She testified that she had visited her brother’s family a few months before the shootings and everything appeared normal.

Changing the laws

In the Jamelle James case, the 6-year-old who shot his classmate was never charged with a crime because most jurisdictions hold that children under the age of 7 are unable to formulate criminal intent.

The same cannot be said for Ethan Crumbley, who was 15 years old at the time of the shootings. He was charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of terrorism causing death, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney Karen McDonald answers questions at news conference.
Oakland County prosecuting attorney Karen McDonald announces on Dec. 3, 2021, that charges have been filed against the parents of Oxford High School gunman Ethan Crumbley. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Many people on both sides of the gun safety debate have applauded McDonald’s efforts to hold people responsible for allowing guns to fall into the hands of children.

According to a 2019 assessment by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 76% of the guns used in school shootings came from a parent or close relative, and approximately half the weapons were easily accessible.

At the time of the Oxford High School shootings, Michigan had no law requiring guns to be properly stored away from juveniles.

But two weeks after the Oxford shootings, for example, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, proposed a federal law holding parents or other responsible adults liable for failing to secure their firearms.

That federal proposal became part of a state legislative package signed into law April 13, 2023, by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The new laws took effect on Jan. 1, 2024. They established universal background checks for all firearm purchases and safe storage requirements designed to keep guns out of the hands of children.

Some material used in this story was originally published on Feb. 6, 2024.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.