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TOPSHOT - Jennifer Crumbley, 45, exits the courtroom of Oakland County Court in Pontiac, Michigan, during a break in her trial on four counts of involuntary manslaughter on 2 February 2024. Her son, Ethan Crumbley, 17, is serving a life sentence for the 30 November 2021 shooting at Oxford High School, which left four students dead and six students and a teacher wounded. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

School Shooter’s Mother Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter

In a first-of-its-kind verdict, a Michigan jury convicted Jennifer Crumbley of involuntary manslaughter in her son’s killing of four high school students in 2021. Prosecutors said Crumbley had a duty under state law to prevent her son, who was 15 during the attack, from harming others. She was accused of failing to secure a gun and ammunition at home and failing to get help for her son’s mental health, according to the Associated Press.

On 26 November 2021, James Crumbley, Jennifer Crumbley's husband, bought a 9mm Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun, which was intended for his son Ethan as a Christmas present. Jennifer Crumbley later took Ethan to a gun range to test out the weapon. On 29 November, a teacher at Oxford High saw Ethan searching online for ammunition and reported it to school staff. Staff told Jennifer Crumbley about the search but said Ethan was not in trouble. That night, the teenager recoded a video declaring his plan to kill students, an AP timeline explained.

On 30 November 2021, James and Jennifer Crumbley met with school officials because a teacher found violent drawings and disturbing notes by Ethan. The parents were told to put their son into counseling, but they declined to take the boy home. Hours later, their son pulled the handgun out of his backpack and shot 10 students and a teacher, killing four people.

Ethan Crumbley, now 17, was charged as an adult, and in October 2022 he pled guilty to 24 charges, including murder and terrorism. He is serving a life sentence.

In a court filing, assistant prosecutor Joseph Shada said involuntary manslaughter has been “well-defined for ages, and its elements are definite and plain: gross negligence causing death.”

James and Jennifer Crumbley were not accused of knowing their son planned to kill fellow students, but they said they made a gun accessible to their sun, ignored his mental health needs, and declined to take him home when they saw his violent drawings at the school. Prosecutors argued that Jennifer Crumbley was the last adult to have possession of the handgun and she understood that her son knew how to use it.

Jennifer Crumbley told jurors that it was her husband’s job to keep track of the gun, and that she saw no signs of mental distress in her son. In a journal entry, however, Ethan Crumbley wrote that his parents were not heeding his pleas for help, noting that “I have zero help for my mental problems and it’s causing me to shoot up the… school,” the AP reported.

Prosecutors presented evidence that the boy had complained of hallucinations, but Jennifer Crumbley said she did not think her son had mental health problems, according to the BBC.

The guilty verdict concerned some legal experts, many of whom were divided on whether the case was valid, if the unique level of evidence could be replicated in other cases, and what it might mean for trying future juvenile crimes in the United States.

“I think, in many ways, this case will certainly make prosecutors look at their work a little differently when it comes to parents who are neglectful, in terms of how they handle weapons around the home, making weapons available for their kids,” said George Gascón, the district attorney of Los Angeles, in a New York Times article.

“Could more prosecutors file charges emboldened by this kind of ruling and the verdict?” said University of Michigan law professor Eve Brensike Primus in the same article. “Sure. Do I think they will be successful around the country getting charges to stick if they don’t have the requisite facts that can demonstrate real knowledge? No.”

Sentencing is scheduled for 9 April. The maximum term for involuntary manslaughter in Michigan is 15 years, but prosecutors have not said if they will ask for consecutive sentences on the four convictions, which would add up to a maximum of 60 years.

James Crumbley will face a separate trial starting in March, facing the same charges.

While this is the first case where a mass shooter’s parents are being held to account for their child’s actions, this is hardly the first case where a parent has been prosecuted after his or her child committed an act of violence. Deja Taylor, the mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his first-grade teacher in Newport News, Virginia, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to felony child neglect. Taylor also pled guilty to using marijuana while owning a firearm and making false statements about her drug use, The New York Times reported. The child was not charged.