By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – Jury selection begins in Michigan on Tuesday in a rare trial of a parent who prosecutors have charged with being complicit in a mass shooting carried out by her son.
Lawyers were set to start questioning prospective jurors in the manslaughter trial of Jennifer Crumbley, whose then-15-year-old son Ethan murdered four fellow students at Oxford High School in 2021 with a gun his parents had given him as a Christmas gift.
Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty in 2022 to two dozen counts, including four of first-degree murder, and last month was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Jennifer Crumbley and her husband James Crumbley were being tried separately after being charged with four manslaughter counts in late 2021. They have remained in jail since. James Crumbley’s trial opens on March 5.
When the charges were announced, prosecutors said the Crumbley’s failure to both secure the gun in their home and to respond to warnings that their son, Ethan, was violent and disturbed, justified the charges they face.
Defense attorneys have said in court documents that the Crumbleys had no way of knowing their son was going to carry out the shooting.
Legal experts have said that the parents’ trial, which appears to be the first of its kind, breaks new legal ground.
Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said school shooter’s parents are often not held to account because of feelings that “they’ve been through enough” or because of lax enforcement of such measures as safe storage laws.
Holding more parents responsible when appropriate is an important step, Horwitz said, given that studies by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have shown that around 75% of all school shooters obtained their weapons in the home.
“Rarely are high school shooters going out and buying guns from a gun store,” Horwitz said. “The broader lesson from this case is that every parent who is a gun owner has a role to play, and that’s the secure and safe storage of firearms.”
Four days before the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting, Ethan Crumbley accompanied his father to a gun shop, where James Crumbley bought a 9mm handgun, prosecutors said.
Michigan law prohibits those under 18 years of age from buying or possessing firearms, except in limited circumstances such as hunting with a license and a supervising adult.
Ethan posted photos of the gun on social media, writing, “Just got my new beauty today” and adding a heart emoji. The next day his mother posted that the two of them were at a gun range “testing out his new Christmas present,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said when she announced charges against the parents.
The day before the shooting at the school near Detroit, a teacher found Ethan Crumbley using his smart phone to search for ammunition and alerted school officials. The officials left messages for his mother that went unreturned. His mother later texted him, “LOL, I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”
On the morning of the shooting, a teacher discovered drawings by Ethan Crumbley that depicted a handgun, a bullet, and a bleeding figure next to the words “Blood everywhere,” “My life is useless,” and “The thoughts won’t stop – help me.”
Ethan told school counselors the drawings were for a video game he was designing, school officials have said.
The Crumbleys were called to the school on the morning of the shooting, and told that Ethan urgently needed counseling and that they needed to take him home, prosecutors have said. The parents resisted the idea of taking their son home and did not search his backpack nor ask him about the gun.
Ethan Crumbley was returned to class and later walked out of a bathroom with the gun and began firing, prosecutors say.
“This tragedy could have been prevented if the shooter’s parents hadn’t played a central role in acquiring the gun for the shooter, or if his parents had taken basic steps to securely store the gun,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president of Law and Policy at the anti-gun violence nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. “They should be held accountable.”
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; editing by Donna Bryson and Michael Perry)