Is Guilty Verdict for School Shooter’s Mom a Precedent or an Outlier?

Gun control activists are hoping that a Michigan jury’s decision to find Jennifer Crumbley guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter for her son’s murder of four students at Oxford High School is just the beginning of many similar decisions to come in the future, but their myopic focus on the fact that the teen’s parents purchased a firearm for him ignores all of the other aspects of the case that led the jury to reach their decision.

“Plain and simple, the deadly shooting at Oxford High School in 2021 should have — and could have — been prevented had the Crumbleys not acquired a gun for their 15-year-old son,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, a national advocacy group, in a statement. “This decision is an important step forward in ensuring accountability and, hopefully, preventing future tragedies.”
Prosecutors argued that Crumbley, 45, neglected her son and ignored signs that he was in crisis and needed help. Involuntary manslaughter, a homicide charge, carries high requirements that a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, said UM Law Professor Eve Brensike Primus. These included gross negligence on the part of the mother and causation, or that she could have reasonably foreseen her son’s actions, she said.

The Crumbley’s purchase of a gun that they claimed would only be used under adult supervision at a range wasn’t the only factor for the jury to consider, and despite Suplina’s assertion, the teen killer could have carried out the murders even if his parents hadn’t made the purchase; stealing one of their own firearms or acquiring one in another illegal fashion. The real question was whether the teen’s mother and father (who has yet to face his own trial on involuntary manslaughter charges) were negligent in allowing him access to a firearm when they should have known he was struggling with his mental health. Even some of those who believe the verdict was appropriate don’t think this case will lead to a wave of similar charges in the future.

Former federal prosecutor Mark Chutkow hailed the outcome as “an extremely important, if not landmark, criminal prosecution.”
“Since the time of the Sandy Hook shooting over 10 years ago, there have been calls for greater accountability for parents who allow their children access to guns in their homes,” Chutkow said, adding the Crumbley case is an “extreme example” of how the acts and omissions of a parent can have tragic consequences outside the home.
Chutkow explained that the jury may have felt the combination of the shooter’s age and his mental health put greater responsibility on his parents to stop him from hurting himself or others. He said other prosecutors will likely look at this case as a road map for how to bring a similar prosecution.
“But I don’t think there will be a landslide of these cases because the facts here were so extreme,” Chutkow said, stressing that the parents knew “their son was lonely and delusional, yet they bought him a lethal weapon just four days before the mass shooting.”

For anti-gun activists like Suplina, it was solely the decision to purchase a pistol that led to the guilty verdict, but as Chutkow points out, the jury also heard evidence that Crumbley had repeatedly ignored and dismissed her son’s pleas for help with his mental illness. The context in which the gun purchase was made was key to the prosecution’s case. If the teen had exhibited no warning signs beforehand, or if his parents had simply taken him out of school the morning of the shooting rather than leaving him behind, I don’t think charges would have ever been filed against them.

Still, some criminal defense attorneys do think this was an example of prosecutorial overreach, and they’re concerned that this might indeed lead to more charges against parents seeking to hold them responsible for the actions of their kids.

“This was a guilty verdict in a case that I, along with several national pundits, have viewed as a major overreach in applying the law of involuntary manslaughter,” Detroit criminal defense attorney Michael Bullotta, a former federal prosecutor, said following the verdicts.
Bullotta said involuntary manslaughter charges are, by their very nature, “incredibly fact-dependent and demand level-headed and thoughtful charging decisions by prosecutors.”
“Those decisions should not be based on emotion or made to appease the voting public,” Bullotta said, adding he believes this case will subject more parents to unwarranted legal scrutiny.
“Now that we have an example in the books of what facts are enough to subject parents to 15 years or more in prison, I expect that prosecutors in Michigan and nationwide will consider charging parents, not only in school shootings but in many other crimes their children commit,” Bullotta said. “It is quite frightening to imagine where this precedent will lead.”
Moreover, Bullotta said, this verdict “helped the Oakland County prosecutor construct a slippery slope down which other prosecutors will attempt to slide any number of prosecutions of parents for the conduct of their kids, even where their child’s conduct was unforeseeable, as it was here.”
He added: “There is a reason why this is the only case of its kind ever brought. And it should be the last, at least on the facts in the Crumbley case.”

Time will tell if this case is an outlier or the start of a new wave of prosecutions for the parents of juvenile criminals. We may very well see more attempts to charge parents, at least in high-profile crimes, but I suspect that a jury will need to see evidence of neglect on the part of those parents before any convictions are handed down.

I’m not an attorney, but I am a dad, and while I didn’t follow the Crumbley trial gavel-to-gavel, from what I did see and hear during the trial it sounds like Jennifer Crumbley was wrapped up in her own world and just blithely assumed that her kid was okay, even when there were glaring signs that he was struggling. Still, as Bullotta says, was it foreseeable that her son would take a gun to school and target fellow students for murder? That seems like a stretch to me, given the rarity of those incidents.

Should every gun-owning parent be worried that if their kid commits a crime they’ll be charged as well? Owning a gun doesn’t make you a bad parent, though that’s exactly what the gun control lobby wants the public to take away from the guilty verdict here.Honestly, I think our bigger concerns should simply be the well-being of our children. If you see them struggling, talk to them. Don’t ignore what they have to say, but listen and respond accordingly. If you have concerns about the state of their mental health, get them help. You might decide that temporarily removing firearms from your home is appropriate, but that’s a decision that has to be made based on your particular circumstances. The most important thing is to be involved and engaged in their lives, not only when it’s convenient for us, but when they need us to be there with our love and support.

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