Ethan Crumbley, who was frequently left home alone, texted his mother in March 2021 saying he had seen a demon in their house, one that threw plates across the kitchen. Days later, his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, talked about how their teenage son was “excited and agitated,” weighing whether to give him Xanax.
The following November, James Crumbley, ignoring what seemed like warning signs that Ethan was having mental health problems, bought his son a semi-automatic pistol. Ethan, then 15, used the gun to kill four students at Oxford High School, the worst school shooting in Michigan history.
Jennifer Crumbley, 45, is scheduled to go on trial Tuesday, charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths, new territory when it comes to prosecuting school shootings. James Crumbley, 47, faces a separate trial, scheduled for March, also on involuntary manslaughter charges related to the slayings.
Although adults have been prosecuted before when children commit violent crimes, the Oxford High School case goes a step further by trying to hold parents criminally responsible for an intentional mass shooting. Oakland County Prosecutor Karen D. McDonald has said the Crumbleys are guilty because they allowed their son access to a gun while ignoring warnings that he was worried.
Both parents pleaded not guilty and their lawyers said they had no idea Ethan was capable of such violence.
“One of the fundamental principles of American criminal law is that one is not responsible for the actions of another person,” said Ekow N. Yankah, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. But Yankah said the Crumbleys provided a perfect case to test that principle, pointing to what he called a “damning” set of facts against the couple.
“It’s hard to think of a set of facts that would be more attractive for prosecution,” he said.
Numerous pretrial testimony and court documents have portrayed the couple as negligent parents. They drank heavily, fought loudly in front of Ethan, and often left him alone at home, despite his fragile mental health.
After James Crumbley bought the gun, his wife took Ethan to the shooting range.
When a teacher reported seeing Ethan searching for ammunition online, his mother did not seem alarmed.
“LOL I’m not mad at you,” Jennifer Crumbley texted her son. “You have to learn not to get caught.”
On the day of the attack, after a teacher found Ethan with a violent drawing depicting a shooting, his parents refused a school counselor’s request to take him home.
After their son’s arrest, the Crumbleys appeared to flee to avoid prosecution and were discovered by police hiding in the basement of a Detroit art studio. (The parents’ attorneys said the Crumbleys had not fled, but rather left town for their own safety and planned to return for the arraignment.)
It is unclear whether Ethan, now 17, will be called to testify, but his lawyers said they will advise him to invoke his right to remain silent. Ethan is appealing his sentence of life in prison without parole.
Unable to post a combined $1 million bail, the parents have been held in the Oakland County Jail for more than two years. Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl A. Matthews will preside over both trials, which will be held separately at the couple’s request.
Since the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting, McDonald, the prosecutor in affluent Oakland County outside Detroit, has turned gun violence into a personal crusade. In an interview shortly after the shooting, McDonald said he saw the attack as an opportunity to promote responsible gun ownership.
He also formed a commission to study ways to prevent gun violence. Partly prompted by the shooting, the Michigan Legislature recently passed a measure requiring gun owners to store their firearms in a locked container when a minor is likely to be on the premises. Ethan has said that the gun he used was unlocked.
In 2000, Arthur Busch, a former prosecutor in nearby Flint, Michigan, handled a school shooting case there. Kayla Rolland, a first-grade student in a suburb near Flint, was shot and killed by a 6-year-old classmate.
Prosecutors said the boy, who found the gun in a house where he lived with relatives, treated the gun as if it were a toy. His uncle, accused of involuntary manslaughter for leaving the gun accessible, pleaded no contest and spent two years and five months in prison before being released on parole.
Still, Busch said, the Crumbley case could be difficult to prosecute.
“The fact that they bought him a gun when he had these profound mental health issues is pretty reckless,” Busch said. “But the closer the public starts to look at this, I think there are parents who might say, ‘That could be me.’ I have this insolent, oppositional son and I have to be responsible for that? That doesn’t seem fair to me.’”