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Jurors found a teen school shooter’s father and mother guilty of manslaughter. Here’s what the verdicts mean for parents


By Dalia Faheid and Eric Levenson, CNN

(CNN) — In a groundbreaking verdict, a Michigan jury on Thursday found James Crumbley – whose son killed four students at his high school in 2021 – guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a result experts say could set an important precedent for the extent to which parents of school shooters can be held responsible.

Just last month, the shooter’s mother, Jennifer Crumbley, was convicted of the same four charges, making her the first parent ever held directly responsible for a mass shooting committed by their child.

“We’re living in a new world now, and that new world is a prosecutor saying, ‘If we’re not going to have legislation, if we’re not going to have significant protections, we’re going to take it upon ourselves to use the law in a way that gets accountability to everyone and anyone who could have potentially been involved,’” CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday evening.

Prosecutors during his weeklong trial argued James Crumbley was “grossly negligent.” He bought a SIG Sauer 9 mm gun for his son four days before the attack, failed to properly secure it, ignored his son’s downward-spiraling mental health and did not take “reasonable care” to prevent foreseeable danger, prosecutors said.

They also argued the shooting could have been prevented if James or Jennifer Crumbley had listened to a school counselor’s recommendation and taken their son out of school the day of the shooting, or if they had mentioned to school employees they had just bought him a gun.

Ethan Crumbley, then 15, used the SIG Sauer firearm to kill four students and wound six students and a teacher at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021. He was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole.

Even before their verdicts, the cases against the elder Crumbleys had garnered national attention as they tested whether and how parents might be held directly accountable for a mass shooting in a nation dogged by gunfire on campus and gun attacks with several victims. Verdicts of this nature have been rare for parents facing liability for their child’s actions, such as with neglect or firearms charges.

Now, the verdicts in the Crumbley parents’ cases – based on allegations of negligence and foreseeability – likely will be used by prosecutors in other cases, Jackson said.

“If you are a parent and you’re careless because you get your child a weapon – and not only do you get your child a weapon but you fail to secure that weapon – and you have or should have some sense of your child’s mental health maladies and you do nothing to really oversee it or to act in a way that is appropriate in a way that protects the public, then you could be accountable,” he said.

Still, the cases against the Crumbleys reflected parental negligence far outside the norm, prosecuting attorney Karen McDonald told jurors in the latter trial.

It’s not true that “finding James Crumbley guilty of gross negligence would result in a criminal charge for every parent who doesn’t know what their child is doing at all times,” she said, noting he didn’t face “the same normal challenges as parents that we all go through.”

Indeed, the elder Crumbleys’ cases were so uncommon that their impact will likely be limited, Frank Vandervort, clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, said prior to the trials in January.

“I don’t anticipate there’s going to be a lot of this kind of thing filed; I think this is a pretty unique case,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about shootings by teenagers as being run-of-the-mill. Unless you’ve got really unusual factual situations, I don’t anticipate a lot of parents getting charged.”

Could the Crumbley verdicts set a new bar?

Even so, James and Jennifer Crumbley’s guilty verdicts could set an important precedent for who besides the shooter can be held responsible for a mass shooting, though such cases remain uncommon, experts said.

James and Jennifer Crumbley were each convicted of four counts of involuntary manslaughter, a charge that carries a maximum punishment of up to 15 years in prison, running concurrently. Both are set to be sentenced April 9.

There have been several other cases in the US in which parents were charged for shootings committed by their children. In Illinois, the father of the July 4 parade mass shooter was accused of wrongdoing for signing his son’s application for a state Firearm Owners Identification card after he displayed concerning behavior. And in Virginia, the mother of a 6-year-old who shot his teacher faced charges.

While parents can be held responsible for their children’s actions – down even to truancy – the level of severity in the case of the Crumbley parents is different, Vandervort said.

“We do impose on parents certain obligations regarding their children, to say you have a heightened degree of responsibility for what happens when your kids do things. That’s generally in the law,” he said. “The severity of the charges, I think, are what’s unique here.”

In a written opinion last March, a panel of judges for Michigan’s appellate court acknowledged the possible precedent-setting nature of the Crumbley parents’ cases but called the situation unique and unusual, saying concerns are “significantly diminished” by the fact that Ethan Crumbley’s actions “were reasonably foreseeable, and that is the ultimate test that must be applied.”

Ultimately, prosecutors can use the verdicts to deter other parents, Jackson said.

“It’s a verdict that nowadays is going to be used as a tool by prosecutors – and very effectively, I would think – in order to deter this type of conduct moving forward,” Jackson said.

Case focused on mental health and gun security

Jennifer Crumbley’s testimony that she wouldn’t have done anything differently in the run-up to what ended up as a massacre was a recurring topic as jurors mulled the verdict, the jury foreperson in the mother’s trial said on NBC’s “Today” show last month.

“It was repeated a lot in the deliberation room. I think that it was very upsetting to hear. I think that there are many small things that could have been done to prevent this,” she added.

The notion the shooting was foreseeable was among the prosecution’s main arguments. Ethan Crumbley’s parents could have “prevented this tragedy, that was foreseeable, with just the smallest of efforts,” said McDonald, the prosecutor.

Pointing to unsettling text messages and journal entries that Ethan had written, prosecutors argued his parents are personally responsible for the deaths of the four students because they got their son a gun, failed to secure it and ignored signs of his deteriorating mental health.

A detective said a cable lock sold with the SIG Sauer was found still in its plastic packaging, and no other firearm locking mechanisms were found in the home; the defense questioned whether a different locking mechanism may have been used to secure the firearm.

Also key at trial was a meeting between Ethan’s parents and school officials on the morning of the shooting. Oxford High School counselor Shawn Hopkins testified he recommended then that the parents take Ethan out of school to get mental health treatment after the school discovered his disturbing writings on a math worksheet. But Jennifer Crumbley said they wouldn’t be able to do so because they had work. James Crumbley did not protest, the counselor testified.

While conviction of the elder Crumbleys and their son’s guilty plea mark milestones in the deadly 2021 school shooting – and perhaps set new standards for parents’ legal responsibility in such cases – the results do not close the book on the country’s gun violence scourge, McDonald said.

“The three prosecutions and convictions are critical,” she said. “But we will not solve gun violence with these three prosecutions.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Lauren del Valle, Jean Casarez, Aaron Pellish and Elise Hammond contributed to this report.

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