A Michigan mother could face up to 60 years in prison after a jury convicted her Tuesday of four counts of involuntary manslaughter after her teenage son killed four students in a shooting in a school in 2021.
Prosecutors argued that Michigan law required Jennifer Crumbley to stop her son Ethan, then 15, from harming others, and the jury in the case agreed.
Now 17, Ethan is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder and terrorism in October 2022. (His father, James Crumbley, will have his own manslaughter trial in March.)
Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction is the first of its kind in a school shooting case in the United States, raising questions about the extent to which a parent can be held responsible for their child’s criminal actions.
Legal experts say it could have broader implications for the U.S. criminal justice system.
Michael Bullotta, a Detroit-based criminal lawyer, believes the jury’s manslaughter verdict was “excessive,” saying he believed the trial would have ended with a not guilty verdict or a hung jury.
“I have a problem with the legal concept that parents encourage their children to commit crimes by being bad parents,” he said. “That’s what I think this case is about and that’s the dangerous part.”
“The law has changed a little bit today,” said Ekow N. Yankah, a law professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Whether or not this sets a precedent in spectacular cases, it will have an important effect in cases we never see.”
A way to push back
This is not the first time in the United States that parents have been charged in a gun violence case involving their children.
The mother of a six-year-old Virginia boy who brought a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun to school and shot his teacher last year is serving prison time. 21 month prison sentence on various gun crime convictions. She was separately sentenced in November to two years in prison for child neglect.
There is also the case of a father in Illinois who pleaded guilty last fall to seven misdemeanor charges for signing a gun owner’s identification card for his son, despite concerns about his behavior. Her son was a minor at the time, but was legally allowed to own a gun three years later, when he was accused of killing seven people in a mass shooting at a parade on 4 July in 2022.
In Jennifer Crumbley’s case, prosecutors argued that even though she did not pull the trigger, she had stored the gun and ammunition negligently and that she should be held criminally responsible for the four deaths.
As it happens6:16 a.m.Father of Michigan school shooting victim welcomes conviction of killer’s mother
Prosecutors also said she and her husband knew Ethan was mentally in a “downward spiral” and posed a danger to others, but nonetheless allowed him access to firearms, including the gun. nine millimeters that they had bought as a Christmas present and which had been used to kill her husband. classmates.
Jennifer Crumbley testified in her own defense, saying her husband was responsible for safely storing firearms in the family home and that although her son had been eager to get into college and learn what he would do with her life, she didn’t think her problems merited seeing a psychiatrist.
Yankah wasn’t entirely surprised that the prosecutor made the decision to bring such a serious charge against the parent of a child who committed mass murder.
“We live in a country where there are just too many school shootings,” he said.
In the first month of 2024, for example, there were seven school shootings in the United States that resulted in deaths or injuries, according to the website’s tracking. Education Week. The site account 38 such shootings last year and 51 in 2022.
“Every time (these shootings) tear a community apart, a prosecutor might want to stand up and say, ‘This is my way of fighting back in a country where we have no other legal tools to combat school shootings ‘” Yankah said.
Gun safety advocates praised the jury for taking such a step.
Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions, part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, told Reuters that Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction showed that “the jury understood that in America today, purchasing a handgun for a troubled teenager was grossly negligent and put the community at risk. »
Condemned for bad parenting?
Bullotta said that under Michigan law, a conviction for involuntary manslaughter requires proximate cause — that the defendant’s actions were sufficiently related to the cause of death.
But he said Jennifer Crumbley was found guilty of what she did not do to prevent the shooting. Bullotta doubts she would have predicted her son would go on a shooting rampage at school, regardless of his perceived negligence.
He believes Tuesday’s verdict could “inspire other ill-conceived prosecutions” and that prosecutors’ offices could be expected to take an in-depth look at whether or not parents should be charged in police shootings. school.
Isabel Grant, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said it’s possible a parent in Canada could face a manslaughter charge in connection with their child’s murder, even if she is not aware of such cases in this country.
She said the manslaughter charge is “a very serious offense” that could apply in certain situations, even though parents in Canada are generally not held responsible for crimes committed by their children.
“If you breach a duty you have under the law that causes death, if your conduct deviates markedly and substantially from that of a reasonable parent in the circumstances, you may be held responsible for that death,” Grant said. “It’s not that you’re being held accountable for what your child did. You’re being held accountable for what you did.”
Out of sight, out of mind
Yankah says the real effects of Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction could play out in cases that never go to trial but end in plea negotiations, which don’t often get the same level of attention as a case like that of Crumbley.
He believes this precedent is something prosecutors will “have in their back pocket” to threaten conviction and convince defendants to plead guilty.
A study last year by the American Bar Association found that almost 98 percent convictions resulted from guilty pleas.
Yankah said legal precedent like this could be more likely to affect Black people and other people of color in the criminal justice system.
He gave the example of a California truancy law that exposes parents to hefty fines and even jail time if their child is chronically absent from school without reason. But reports showed that there were racial and socioeconomic disparities in unexcused absences, suggesting that people in these groups may be disproportionately penalized.
“Every time we add new tools and criminal law in America, there is a fear that — (and) our past failed experiences teach us this — it will target the most politically vulnerable,” Yankah said.