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.
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.