Ethan Crumbley was 15 when he opened fire at his suburban Detroit high school in November 2021, armed with a semi-automatic handgun that his parents helped purchase as an early Christmas present.
The rampage left four students dead and several others injured, shattering the close-knit community of Oxford, Michigan, and resulting last month in a life sentence without parole for Crumbley, who was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to two dozen counts, including for murder and terrorism.
Now, scrutiny falls on the teenager’s parents.
In a rare attempt to hold the parents of a school shooter criminally responsible, James Crumbley, 47, and his wife, Jennifer, 45, are each facing four counts of involuntary manslaughter and will be tried separately, with a trial set to open with jury selection in Oakland County on Tuesday.
But key details remain unclear, including if their separate trials will be held simultaneously or one after the other, and if the latter, which parent would be tried first. A court administrator said such logistical decisions were ongoing.
Defendants requesting separate trials for a related crime is not uncommon and can be part of a larger strategy, said Jeffrey Swartz, a former county judge in Florida and professor at the Cooley Law School in Michigan and Florida.
“The Crumbleys are not going to contest that their son was guilty,” Swartz said. “If I’m projecting in this particular case, each parent is going to point the finger at the other. Which one knew about Ethan’s problems, who was responsible for hiding and securing the gun?”
Holding two trials at different times could also benefit whoever goes second, as it gives their defense lawyer a chance to reassess what happened in the first trial and what may or may not have played to the jury, Swartz added.
A gag order imposed by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Matthews in 2022 bars both county prosecutors and the separate lawyers for the Crumbleys from speaking publicly.
The involuntary manslaughter charge hinges on the prosecution convincing a jury that each parent played a role in the deaths and that they were the result of unlawful negligence, although neither parent intended for people to die.
If found guilty, the Crumbleys each face up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine per charge.
It’s not unheard of for a parent to be held liable for gun violence perpetrated by their child. In December, a Virginia mother was sentenced to two years in prison for felony child neglect after her 6-year-old son obtained her firearm and shot his teacher during class.
But holding parents accountable in a mass shooting is unusual, which puts an extra emphasis on this trial, observers say.
A day after Thanksgiving 2021, James Crumbley bought his son a 9 mm Sig Sauer, prosecutors said. The teen posted on Instagram, “Just got my new beauty today,” including a smiling face emoji with heart eyes.
Three days later, a teacher at Oxford High School said she saw Ethan Crumbley, a sophomore, searching online for ammunition, and school officials called his mother. But prosecutors said she didn’t respond and instead texted her son, “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”
That same night, Ethan Crumbley recorded a video about planning an attack at school, authorities said.
The following day, a teacher said she found a note on his desk with a drawing of a gun and a person who was shot, and messages including, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” Ethan Crumbley was sent to meet with a school counselor, and he explained the drawing was done as part of a video game design, school officials said. But his parents were called to a meeting that same day; counselors observing him would later say they didn’t believe he was going to engage in any violence based on his demeanor.
School officials said the Crumbleys were told at the meeting that they were required to get him counseling within 48 hours or the school would contact Children’s Protective Services. The parents declined a request to take their son home, prosecutors said, and officials permitted him to remain in school.
Ethan Crumbley would later tell a psychologist that he thought school officials were going to open his backpack and find his gun, but when they never conducted a search, he went on with his plans that day to commit a shooting spree. He would go on to kill students Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17.
James Crumbley called 911 when news broke of the shooting, saying he believed the gunman could be his son. Law enforcement who swarmed the school apprehended Ethan Crumbley.
At a news conference days later, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald suggested the Crumbleys had an earlier duty to inform the school about his weapon when they were told about his drawing.
“The notion that a parent could read those words and also know their son had access to a deadly weapon, that they gave him, is unconscionable,” McDonald said, “and I think it’s criminal.”
Tumultuous home life
The case took a dramatic twist at the time when the U.S. Marshals Service released wanted posters and offered rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of James and Jennifer Crumbley, whom they could not find after the involuntary manslaughter charges were announced. (Their lawyers denied they had fled, and said they only left home because they felt unsafe.)
Ahead of his sentencing last year, Ethan Crumbley’s home life became a focus in court discussions about whether or not he was mentally ill and deserved life in prison, given his young age.
A psychologist, Colin King, testified that the teen was like a “feral child,” growing up in a household where his parents argued, neglected him and were unsupportive.
The trial against the parents will likely center on warning signs and their decisions on the day of the shooting, as prosecutors would want to show James and Jennifer Crumbley could have done more to intervene when they were called to the school, while the defense could lay the blame on school administrators, who could have checked Ethan Crumbley’s backpack or locker, said Michael Kelly, a Michigan lawyer who has represented students in school disciplinary cases.
“I think evidence is going to boil down to when the parents and the school administrators are in the same room, and Ethan has yet to act,” Kelly said. “The big question is whose duty and whose job was it to do something?”
Key events in the Oxford High School shooting
- Nov. 30, 2021: Sophomore Ethan Crumbley, 15, opens fire, killing four schoolmates and injuring seven others.
- Dec. 1, 2021: Ethan Crumbley is charged as an adult with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of terrorism and other charges.
- Dec. 3, 2021: Prosecutors announce involuntary manslaughter charges against parents James and Jennifer Crumbley.
- Dec. 4, 2021: The parents plead not guilty.
- Feb. 4, 2022 : A judge rules the parents must stand trial.
- Oct. 24, 2022: Ethan Crumbley pleads guilty in the shooting.
- Dec. 8, 2023: He is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Swartz believes prosecutors may have an uphill battle when it comes to arguing that the parents were negligent in allowing their son access to the weapon. Ethan Crumbley told a judge last year that the gun “was not locked,” contradicting his parents’ claims.
But at the time, there was no state requirement for households with minors to have firearms stored with a lock. Michigan’s law only went into effect this year.
“In order to be guilty of involuntary manslaughter, you have to prove that there was a legal duty that was breached,” Swartz said. “Where was their legal duty?”
‘Emotionally charged’ trial
One facet of the trial will be who sits on the jury in a state where gun rights and gun bills have been fiercely debated by lawmakers; also in play will be how jurors respond to witnesses expected to testify, including a teacher who was shot, and video of the shooting spree.
“This process is so emotionally charged,” Kelly said.
Meanwhile, the Crumbleys have remained held on bond ahead of the trial.
They have found support from their own son, who is in a state prison just 17 miles from Oxford High School. It’s unclear if he will be a witness in the trial, although the Crumbleys’ lawyers said during a court hearing in 2022 they planned to call him and would ask him about “extraneous matters that are important in the case.”
At his sentencing last month, Ethan Crumbley, wearing thick black glasses and shackled in an orange jumpsuit, listened to victim impact statements in which survivors refused to use his name. When it was his turn, he shifted the blame from his parents.
“I am the one who led to why we are here today,” he said. “They did not know and I did not tell them what I planned to do, so they are not at fault.”