Father of Michigan school shooter faces manslaughter trial weeks after his wife’s conviction

Eric Levenson, CNN | 3/8/2024, 12:09 p.m.
The manslaughter trial of James Crumbley, the father of the teenager who killed four students at a Michigan high school …
James Crumbley will be tried in the same Michigan courtroom in which his wife was found guilty weeks ago. Mandatory Credit: Clarence Tabb Jr./Pool/Detroit News/AP via CNN Newsource
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His son killed four people at a Michigan high school. Now, James Crumbley is on trial

Jennifer Crumbley, mother of Ethan Crumbley, was the first parent ever held directly responsible for a mass shooting committed by their child. Now, Ethan's father James is on trial, facing the same charges. CNN's Jean Casarez examines the video evidence likely to come before the jury. Source: WDIV, WXYZ, CNN

The manslaughter trial of James Crumbley, the father of the teenager who killed four students at a Michigan high school in 2021, began with opening statements Thursday, just weeks after his wife, Jennifer, was convicted of the same charges.

James Crumbley was “grossly negligent,” Oakland County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Marc Keast said in openings, because he purchased the murder weapon for his son four days before the attack and failed to secure it even though he knew his son was in a downward spiral.

“That nightmare was preventable and it was foreseeable,” Keast said.

For the defense’s opening statement, Mariell Lehman pleaded ignorance on her client’s behalf. She said Crumbley did not know his son had gained access to the weapon and did not believe there was an imminent, immediate threat of danger.

“You will not hear that James Crumbley knew what his son was going to do,” she said. “You will not hear that James Crumbley even suspected that his son was a danger.”

James Crumbley has pleaded not guilty to four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the November 30, 2021, mass shooting at Oxford High School, in which his son Ethan killed four students and wounded six students and a teacher. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

This case, like the one against his wife, is set to test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting. Prosecutors aiming to expand the scope of blame in mass shootings have used an unusual and novel legal strategy by arguing the shooter’s parents are responsible for the deaths because they got him a gun and disregarded signs of his mental health issues.

Parents have previously faced liability for their child’s actions, such as with neglect or firearms charges. Still, Jennifer Crumbley’s case was the first time a parent of a school shooter was held directly responsible for the killings.

Some legal experts, including Jennifer Crumbley’s defense attorney, expressed concern that these cases could be a dangerous precedent for parents everywhere. Anticipating that argument, Keast said in his opening statement Thursday that no parent is responsible for everything their child does.

“But in a situation where the father was in a position to reasonably foresee what the son was going to do, because the father armed him four days before and was shown a clear statement of intent of what the son was going to do, that’s when that rare set of circumstances are present in that specific set of facts,” he said.

The Crumbleys’ son Ethan pleaded guilty to one count of terrorism causing death, four counts of murder and 19 other charges related to the deadly rampage. He was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole. He did not testify in his mother’s trial, as his attorneys had said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence if called.

Jury selection took place Tuesday and Wednesday as attorneys asked potential jurors whether they could be fair and impartial in the high-profile trial and questioned their beliefs about guns, parenting and mental health. A jury made up of six men and nine women was ultimately selected, and the judge will randomly divide the group into 12 jurors and three alternates prior to deliberations.

Comparing and contrasting the Crumbley parents’ cases

The case against James Crumbley is likely to be altogether similar to the one against his wife, featuring testimony from the same shooting survivors, police investigators and school employees.

For example, the first witness to testify Thursday in James’ trial was Molly Darnell, a teacher who was shot in the shoulder and survived. She was also the first witness in Jennifer Crumbley’s trial.

But there are some key differences between the two cases, particularly in each parent’s firearm expertise and knowledge about Ethan’s mental health problems. Plus, this is a wholly separate trial, meaning there will be a different jury, evidentiary rulings and legal strategies.

The basic facts and allegations, introduced as evidence at Jennifer’s trial, are mostly the same for each parent. Both Jennifer and James Crumbley gave their 15-year-old son a firearm as an early Christmas present and took him to the gun range multiple times.

According to Ethan’s texts and journal entries, they both were dismissive of his mental health struggles and requests for help.

They both were made aware of Ethan’s disturbing drawings on a worksheet, including a gun, a person bleeding, and the phrases “the thoughts won’t stop help me,” and “blood everywhere,” on the morning of the shooting. And they both were present at a pivotal meeting with school counselors that same day, during which they declined to take their son home from school and did not mention his new gun or his mental health issues. Ethan had secretly hidden the gun in his backpack, and less than two hours after the meeting, he took it out and opened fire on schoolmates.

Finally, after the shooting, the two fled town, sparking a manhunt that ended in a late-night raid at a Detroit warehouse.

Yet there are a few key differences. For one, James was the parent who purchased the SIG Sauer 9mm firearm for their son at a gun range on Black Friday and was the registered owner of the firearm, according to receipts. He also was more familiar with firearms and, according to his wife, was the parent in charge of securing the home’s three weapons. “It was more his thing, so I let him handle that,” she testified.

Secondly, the case heavily relies on what the parents knew about Ethan’s mental health issues, and several pieces of evidence from Jennifer’s text messages may not apply to James. For example, Jennifer was the parent who heard from a school official the day before the shooting that Ethan had been searching on his phone for ammo. She later texted her son, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” according to text records.

How much did James know about that and other incidents, and will there be texts to prove it?

“(Jennifer’s) case lived and died on foreseeability. Was this foreseeable?” trial attorney Misty Marris, who is not involved in the cases but has closely followed them, told CNN. “What somebody knows and when is going to be critical to that (foreseeability).”

Third, the prosecution in Jennifer’s trial portrayed her as an inattentive mother, introducing evidence of her extramarital affair and her deep interest in her horses. The evidence of James’ personal issues presumably will be different.

There are also potential differences in James’ legal strategy and whether he testifies.

At her trial, Jennifer Crumbley’s defense pushed blame onto her husband for failing to secure the firearm, on the school for failing to notify her about Ethan’s behavioral issues and on her son for planning and carrying out the heinous shooting. On the stand, she dismissed texts about her son seeing hallucinations, saying they were just jokes, and explicitly said she had no regret for her actions.

“I’ve asked myself if I would have done anything differently, and I wouldn’t have,” she testified.

Jennifer Crumbley’s defense and the prosecution were barred from speaking publicly about her case until the end of James Crumbley’s trial.