On Tuesday, a Michigan jury found Jennifer Crumbley, the mother of convicted school shooter Ethan Crumbley, guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter. This is the first time a parent has been held criminally responsible for the actions of their child in connection with a mass school shooting.
Mrs. Crumbley's husband, James, is scheduled to go on trial in March for the same four charges.
Will this set a legal precedent? Will parents automatically be held responsible for the violent actions of their minor children? We asked Security Business magazine’s legal expert, Timothy Pastore, to give us his view:
“This is a tragic case, but also a legally ground-breaking case – because it is the first time in American jurisprudence where a parent was held criminally culpable for a school mass shooting committed by their child,” Pastore says. “Jennifer Crumbley did not actually fire the weapon that killed four young people on the day of the shooting; nevertheless, a Michigan jury has determined that she committed involuntary manslaughter and bears responsibility for disregarding the risk her son posed to the public and the school.
“Here, the jury determined that, although Mrs. Crumbley did not intend to cause death, her gross negligence resulted in the death of the four victims,” Pastore continues. “While this case is a warning to all parents, it also was premised on a set of unusual facts that typically are not present.
“These parents were aware their child was suffering from a mental health crisis, and instead of seeking help for their child, they bought him a gun,” Pastore says. “Not only did they buy him a gun, but they knew he was not old enough under state law to possess the gun. Then, hours before the shooting, the parents were summoned to the school to discuss their son’s risk of violence. Despite knowing that their son was contemplating violence, the parents made no mention of the gun to school officials and did not remove their child from the school. In the eyes of the jury, these and other facts justified a finding of guilt against the mother.
“The crime of involuntary manslaughter in Michigan is one of the lowest-level homicide offenses that can be charged when someone is killed; however, involuntary manslaughter is a felony punishable by imprisonment of not more than 15 years or by fine of not more than 7,500 dollars. Both are at the discretion of the sentencing judge,” Pastore adds. “Interestingly, Michigan law proscribes the same penalty for both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, but both are distinct offenses under the law.”
Pastore concludes: “As a general matter, I do not expect that this precedent will be imposed regularly; however, it should cause parents to reflect on how they handle circumstances where their child is struggling with mental illness or demonstrating an inclination towards violence.”
Unlike a recent trial that sought to punish a security officer at the scene of a school shooting, it cannot be reasonably construed that Mrs. Crumbley is being scapegoated in this case. She was irresponsible and negligent, and it led to the deaths of four people.
"This is a landmark case in being the first we can recall where a parent has been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. It appears this particular case had elements for the perfect storm to bring this particular jury to this unique outcome," says Dr. Kenneth Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services. "A child with an unmet need for mental health services reportedly known by the parents, a parent who reportedly 'gifted' him a gun, a reported disconnect between the parents and the kid, a school shooting with four lives lost, parents who fled following the incident, and more that combined to bring the jury to this decision. I anticipate this verdict to be appealed so this may not be the final outcome on the matter,"
Dr. Trump also states, that said, caution should be taken not to conflate this specific jury verdict with likely precedence for future school shootings.
"As a civil litigation expert witness on mass school shootings and other cases, I know firsthand that the facts and merits of each case vary. I do not expect to see these charges in Oxford automatically become the norm nationwide moving forward. Each case is unique with its fact pattern, state laws, and prosecutorial analysis of case viability," he adds.
Working in and covering an industry that has taken so many steps to attempt to curb school shootings and violence, it becomes all the more disheartening to hear of another incident. Many of us in this industry have shared tears with parents and victims. It is about time that negligent parents are put on notice. Be vigilant. Don’t ignore the signs. This is a team effort.