PONTIAC, Mich. — Clashing portraits of Jennifer Crumbley emerged Thursday during the opening statement in her trial on involuntary manslaughter charges, as prosecutors said the Michigan mother willfully failed to act before her teenage son's deadly school rampage in 2021, while her defense argued that she simply did not know what he was capable of.
In their statements, both sides focused on the events leading up to the mass shooting at Oxford High School days after Thanksgiving, when school administrators alerted Jennifer Crumbley and her husband, James, of a drawing their son, Ethan, had made of a gun and a bleeding person that a teacher found on his desk.
But Oakland County prosecutor Marc Keast told the jury that while Jennifer Crumbley shared her "private concern" with her husband in Facebook messages, she neglected to say her son had access to a gun when they met with school staff just hours before the shooting spree. Such a meeting with parents could last an hour, but Keast said the Crumbleys ended theirs after 11 minutes and the parents declined to take their son home.
"Even though she didn’t pull the trigger on Nov. 30, she's responsible for those deaths," said Keast, who began his opening statement reciting the names of the four slain students.
The Crumbleys "didn't do a number of tragically small and easy things that would have prevented this from happening," Keast added.
Later, Crumbley's lawyer, Shannon Smith, offered a glimpse into the defense's strategy when she told the jury that, while the mother had taken her son to a gun range — her way of spending time with him as he struggled with the family dog's death and a friend who had moved away — she wasn't responsible for locking and storing the firearm.
James Crumbley had that authority, and "Mrs. Crumbley had nothing to do with that part," Smith said.
"The evidence is going to show you that Jennifer Crumbley did the best she could as a mother to a child who grew up into a teenager," Smith added, "and had no way to know what was going to happen."
She said Jennifer Crumbley will take the stand for the defense during her trial.
Crumbley, dressed in a knit sweater, appeared emotional throughout the day, pushing aside her glasses to wipe away tears while Smith and others spoke. Later, when school surveillance video was shown as part of witness testimony, her audible sobbing drew protest from the prosecutors who questioned the judge about its influence on the jury.
"We were not sobbing and making a scene," Smith told Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Matthews, adding that they are trying their best.
"I'm not a robot, I'm trying to keep myself from sobbing," Matthews said, asking everyone to be aware of their emotions.
The trial of Jennifer Crumbley, 45, puts a rare criminal focus on the parents of a school shooter, as prosecutors contend both Ethan Crumbley's mother and father bear some responsibility for what their then-15-year-old son committed at Oxford High School.
Like his wife, James Crumbley, 47, faces involuntary manslaughter charges in the deaths of the four students: Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17. James Crumbley's trial is set to begin in March.
Ethan Crumbley, now 17, was charged as an adult in the attack and pleaded guilty to murder, terrorism and other crimes before he was sentenced to life in prison without parole in December.
His parents are not accused of knowing about their son's plan, which he had discussed in a video he recorded the day before the shooting, but prosecutors have said the parents were aware of the warning signs and that he grew up in a turbulent home that affected his mental state.
In her instructions to the jury, Matthews said they must weigh whether Jennifer Crumbley knew there was a danger to others and the deaths could have been avoided by using "ordinary care."
Keast told jurors they would see more than 400 pieces of evidence during a trial that could last about three weeks. He said he expects to call law enforcement, co-workers of Jennifer Crumbley and victims of the shooting as witnesses, and that a "pattern" will emerge of how the defendant "downplayed and downright lied" about her level of knowledge about her son.
Smith, during her turn, described the prosecution's case as "slivers of evidence" that require more context and that Ethan Crumbley's actions were "absolutely not foreseeable."
Thursday's opening statements follow two days of jury selection that began Tuesday, after more than 300 prospective jurors were summoned to Oakland County Circuit Court in the highly anticipated trial.
Court staff said 17 people have been called as jurors, but only 12 will weigh Crumbley's fate; no one in the court, including the jurors themselves, will know who is among that final group until the deliberations begin.
The jury is not being sequestered during trial, but the jurors have been told not to watch related news reports, check social media or speak about the case.
The prospective jurors were asked about their beliefs surrounding gun ownership and whether they could separate their feelings about what happened at Oxford High School and their duty to look at this case objectively.
The vast majority of those seated said they either have guns in their household, grew up familiar with guns or have other family members with guns, underscoring a state rooted in gun culture and where gun rights and gun bills have been fiercely debated.
Defense lawyers also asked prospective jurors if they have a bias that a minor should never be around a gun.
In addition, potential jurors were queried about how they would handle someone in the community later learning they were a juror in the trial and disagreed with the verdict the jury reached. Many said they would stand by their decision.
Gun safety and parental duty are expected to be major themes in a trial that observers say is certain to be emotionally charged, as jurors will hear from witnesses personally affected by the shooting and see video from inside the high school.
After opening statements, the trial's initial witnesses included Oxford High School staff who described the day of the shooting.
On the eve of the trial of his mother, Ethan Crumbley's new defense lawyers said in a court filing that they would encourage him not to testify if he is called as a witness. In response, Jennifer Crumbley’s defense attorneys filed a motion asking the court to compel the shooter and his doctors to testify, or block certain evidence such as text messages and journal entries from being introduced at the trial.
The son's defense attorneys also suggested he is appealing his sentence, but later clarified that it was "premature to speculate whether he will even choose to appeal."
Selina Guevara reported from Pontiac and Erik Ortiz from New York.