Crumbley Parents And The Causal Connection

It might not be too great a stretch to say that James and Jennifer Crumbley, parents of  Oxford High School shooter, Ethan, aren’t going to win any prizes for parents of the year, but their charges for involuntary manslaughter raise very serious concerns. The allegations against them are disturbing.

Michigan prosecutors on Friday charged the couple with involuntary manslaughter for buying their son the weapon as a Christmas gift and ignoring warning signs as late as the day of the shooting. They said Jennifer Crumbley wrote in a text message to her son, “LOL, I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” after a teacher saw him searching for ammunition on his phone during class.

The morning of the shooting, a teacher discovered a drawing that Ethan Crumbley had made depicting a handgun, a bullet, and a bleeding figure, with the words “Blood everywhere” and “The thoughts won’t stop – help me.” After being summoned to the school and shown the picture, James and Jennifer Crumbley did not take their son home, search his backpack or ask about the gun, prosecutors said.

From these allegations, it could well be established that the parents were negligent, if not reckless, in their disregard, if not refusal, to address the red flags of their son being a potential school shooter. Then again, the view of these allegations taken in retrospect may well be argued to be entirely different than the prospective view. Each of these allegations could be explained or ignored had Ethan not subsequently opened fire. It’s far easier to see red flags afterward, but had there been no shooting, would anyone care that the parents shrugged off the signs?

But these are criminal charges, not feelings of general impropriety by parents who failed to behave as we would hope parents would. The outcome, the horrific killing of four students, naturally evokes feelings that everyone who contributed to this tragedy deserves to be punished. But those understandable and expected feelings are not a substitute for the elements of the offense charged.

Oddly, the Michigan Penal Code doesn’t define the elements of manslaughter, but only provides the punishment, relying on the common law for the crime itself.

750.321 Manslaughter.

Manslaughter—Any person who shall commit the crime of manslaughter shall be guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison, not more than 15 years or by fine of not more than 7,500 dollars, or both, at the discretion of the court.

A fundamental element of manslaughter at common law includes causing the death of another person. Whether the act(s) that caused the death were intentional or reckless distinguishes voluntary from involuntary, but both require that the person charged cause the death. Did the Crumbly parents cause death?

Some states have laws holding gun owners liable for failing to secure weapons around children, but Michigan does not. That means prosecutors will be relying on traditional criminal law, under which they must prove that the Crumbleys were not merely negligent, but grossly negligent or reckless, the experts said.

The obvious argument is that the parents could have prevented the killings at numerous points along the way, from not buying their child a handgun in the first place to securing it properly, checking his backpack for the gun or pulling their son from school. No doubt this is correct, and there is a strong argument to be made that their failure to act was reckless.

But failing to secure a weapon is a stand-alone issue, one that violates the law in those states which require gun owners to do so. The parents failure to do so would have given rise to violation of the law if Michigan had such a requirement. It does not.

Failing to secure a weapon, however, does not mean that the weapon will be used, or used against others. But it does provide the opportunity. Parents have been prosecuted for murder when their young child plays with an unsecured gun and kills himself, but that’s a very different fact pattern as a young child lacks the capacity to understand and form intent, putting the onus on the parents to protect the child from self-harm. Here, Ethan Crumbley was old enough to understand and appreciate the dangers of a handgun and to form his own intent to act.

Did James and Jennifer Crumbley cause the deaths of four students or did Ethan? Was their failure to prevent their son from shooting the proximate cause of other students being killed? This is a stretch of law and logic that has never before been attempted. The emotional appeal to hold the parents responsible is strong, give their shockingly cavalier attitude toward their son’s possession and use of the gun. And their failure to appear voluntarily for arraignment, which certainly appears as if they were trying to flee while their child was in custody, surely doesn’t endear them to anyone.

Even so, their doing as much as they can to make themselves appear repugnant does not mean the causal element of manslaughter is met. For all they did wrong before and after, they did not cause their son to shoot anyone. He did that on his own, even if they might have prevented it by being minimally decent parents.

As others have pointed out, the feeling that these parents are so awful that we should gloss over the lack of a causal connection because these parents deserve it leads to some very problematic outcomes. This is hardly the first time a teenager has engaged in gun violence, whether as a school shooter or on the mean streets. In many instances, an investigation of their family dynamics will provide ripe fodder for allegations of bad parenting, neglect of signs that the teen was willing and able to kill and reckless failure to prevent their child from killing others.

Some argue that this is bad because it’s likely to disproportionately impact black and Hispanic parents, which is almost certainly true but entirely irrelevant. If the theory of prosecution is proper, it’s no less so based on the race of the shooter’s parents. If murder is wrong, it’s no less so because of the race of the shooter. But is the theory of prosecution proper when the defendants to be held criminally culpable weren’t the shooter and didn’t cause anyone’s death? No, they didn’t prevent it either, but that’s a very slippery slope.

34 thoughts on “Crumbley Parents And The Causal Connection

  1. Dan J

    The texts from the mother, both the “lol” and the “don’t do it”, are being seen by some as evidence the mother knew what he was planning to do and didn’t intervene. That may be worse but based on your post it wouldn’t seem to matter. Maybe the police have some evidence not yet shared.

    1. SHG Post author

      The texts related to his searching ammo during class. There is no rational connection between the texts to what he did later. More importantly, this post is about the causal connection concept, not the details of the case. I appreciate that some can’t think beyond the details, but give it a try.

  2. Henry Berry

    My view is that the prosecutor is trying to get ahead of pressure for prosecuting school authorities. If you break the Incident down, as opposed to wallowing in the emotionally-charged territory of bad parenting and flaws of parents, you see that school authorities were in the better position to prevent the incident. For instants, why didn’t they notify psychologists, or perhaps the police who could have searched Crumbley’s backpack. It seems to me if school authorities were concerned enough to contact the parents, they should have done more, which would in all likelihood at least prevented such an incident for the time being.

    1. SHG Post author

      What part of this post made you believe it was about your views of the school’s responsibility? Henry, I don’t want to keep trashing your comments, but if you can’t do much better than this, you leave me no choice.

  3. DaveL

    Parents have been prosecuted for murder when their young child plays with an unsecured gun and kills himself, but that’s a very different fact pattern as a young child lacks the capacity to understand and form intent…

    It may be worth noting that the prosecution has chosen to charge the shooter as an adult, which gives the impression they want to have their cake and eat it too.

  4. PK

    All guns are but weapons to be stolen and used to shoot up schools. It’s always foreseeable that your teenaged son could crack your safe, steal your weapons, and put them to terrible ends. These parents didn’t even put an easily compromised barrier between a gun and their child. They might as well have gone and shot up the school themselves. I don’t see any cause that would intervene in the parents’ favor here. Teenaged boys know not what they do.

    Except that the son is a person with his own ability to form his own intent to commit theft of the gun and murders later. The parents didn’t let him walk around with it and kept it from him. He had to take it from them without telling them and bring it to school on his own, which is undoubtedly another crime. If you’re going to condemn the parents, the school should be condemned for not having metal detectors or wands at all entrances staffed 24/7. Had they done what is almost expected in our guns and schools age, then this could have been avoided, you could say. The connection between the parents not buying a safe and their son shooting up a school is far too tenuous to support the charges.

    Gladly “but-for” isn’t enough because if it was, every single one of us could be guilty. But for the universe existing, the son wouldn’t have been able to shoot up a school. Guns and schools will be too much for most to be able to parse the issues of proximate cause, but it’s important.

  5. B. McLeod

    It was clear at the outset that this was not a carefully reasoned charging decision, but the product of “Something must be done. . .”

    The filing and almost immediate public announcement were done with unusual haste. At the press conference, the prosecutor declared that she was angry, both as a prosecutor and as a mother, that nobody had prevented the shootings. It just looked hurried, sloppy, and unduly affected by emotionalism.

  6. Drew Conlin

    B.McLeod is quicker than I am. I did think of the phrase you use not infrequently… “ Something must be done, this is something”…

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s what I call the syllogism:

      Something must be done
      This is something
      this must be done

      That said, I’m not sure this is a good example. They have the alleged shooter, a warm body to hold accountable for the killings. That’s the “something.” Why this time do they want “something more”?

      1. KP

        Get with it Grandad! Obviously they want convictions on the parents so it has a chilling effect on any other parent wanting to buy their kids a gun. Next, your kid has a car crash, you’re responsible, then manslaughter charges if your kid suicides…

        I’d like to know what medications he took, then we can hit the doctor who prescribed them and the pharma company for making them without correct warnings on the packets. We can go the gun manufacturer again, that’s always worth another try..

        After all, if the Socialists believe it takes a village to raise a child then we are ALL guilty.. There is no such thing as individual responsibility under the Democrats, its all a feast for lawyers!

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re probably right, that there is a serious dose of using this prosecution to prevent parents from buying guns for their kids. The stopped clock is real.

  7. Scott Jacobs

    The prosecution is also looking into whether it can/should charge the teachers because the teachers had “reason to search” the kid, but failed to do so (or decided not to).

    This prosecutor REALLY wants to win an election for office.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve trashed half a dozen comments today for bringing up the school admins since this post has nothing to do with them, completely misses the point and demonstrates a severely unlawyer-like inability to focus on the issue at hand. And you didn’t catch the drift from my reply to poor Henry?

      1. Henry Berry

        Reply from poor Henry: I think some of us are bringing up the school admin.because what we’re seeing is what might be called a displaced prosecution — i. e., the prosecutor goes after the parents, — the most defenseless and readily reviled culprits around — leaving the school admin out of it. I see the prosecutor as either willfully blind or cunningly blind.. She pays no attention to school admin, who are other government officials, while going hard after parents who seem something like poor white trash. I know SHG focuses on the legalities, but often — no, make that usually — psychology is behind the play of the legalities. Much of law is symbolism, not logic. SHG is right that the prosecutor’s basis for accusing the parents of manslaughter is vacuous. It makes sense that it was done only by referring to psychology. Some of us search for an explanation for the prosecutor’s cracked logic. Poor Henry now returns to his room.

        1. SHG Post author

          Poor Henry, it’s no mystery why, and the fact that a number of other readers beside you suffer from the same inability to focus on what distinguishes SJ from reddit.

          You’re free to let your mind wander where you will. Just not here.

        2. David

          Henry, there’s no basis for a criminal prosecution of the school officials for homicide either. But that’s not the point, which you persist in missing.

          The parents were charged. This is a post about those charges. This is not a post about random shit that floats through random idiots heads. Does random shit interest you? Cool! Go find the subreddit for random shit and leave the lawyers alone.

  8. Skink

    I don’t get it, but I’m no CDL. We only have guesswork as to what evidence exists to support the charge, but it sure looks thin. Unless there’s an admission amounting to them giving him the gun and telling him to feel free to shoot those he dislikes, is there something to be gained by bringing charges that can’t be supported?

    I don’t deal in manslaughter, but about a zillion of my cases require the same state-of-mind. I’m overjoyed when an ancillary claim is brought against another party for the same result. It wasn’t my clients, but those other folks. Why help support a cockamamie potential defense that that the kid is floppy-brained and his parents talked him into shooting other kids?

  9. JW

    I’m not a lawyer. What strikes me is this kind of event keeps occuring. Why can the crazy among us keep doing these things. I think because they know that once they get a weapon the way to killing is open. They know schools are easy because the people in charge let them happen. Why the people who knew of the cartoons and notes about voices didn’t recognize a dangerous person in their midst is beyond me. The parents not wanting to take him back should have been a red flag. Now there are 11 victims, 4 dead. The finger pointing has started while somewhere someone is waiting his turn.

  10. Gregory Smith

    Because you are as usual focusing on the legal dimensions, you miss the policy dimension. Ethan was crying out for help, help that was not forthcoming because while there are public funds aplenty for federal marshalls, courts and prosecutors, there are none for treatment and counselling. Sure, legislators create laws, but they also create budgets.

    Are you wasting time with your posts? Do you mean they won’t make a difference one way or another ? Will anything i or any else posts in reply impact your or anyone else’s beliefs in any way? Not the right questions.

        1. Ron

          Dude, this is a law blog written by a lawyer for other lawyers. You want someone to write about shit you feel matters? Cool. Then get out of here and read s/dumbasses all you want. Who the fuck are you to come here and whine like some ignorant bitch that it’s too lawyerish when you don’t want it to be.

          Fucking fruitcake.

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