Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance
February 6, 2024
A Michigan jury found Jennifer Crumbley, the mother of the Oxford High School shooter, guilty of involuntary manslaughter Tuesday.
In a first-of-its-kind case, the jury found that Crumbley bore enough responsibility for the deaths caused by her son’s actions that she should be held criminally liable.
At age 15, Crumbley’s son shot and killed four of his classmates at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021, days after his father bought him a gun. Crumbley’s son was sentenced to life without parole in December.
Crumbley’s husband, James Crumbley, has a separate trial scheduled for March.
After two days of deliberations, a jury in Oakland County Circuit Court in metro Detroit delivered the guilty verdict for Jennifer Crumbley on four counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the students killed: Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Julianna and Justin Shilling.
The jury had been tasked by the court to determine whether Crumbley’s actions warranted involuntary manslaughter charges, which marks new legal ground for determining responsibility for a mass shooting.
Crumbley now faces up to 15 years in prison ahead of her sentencing scheduled for April 9.
Her defense argued during the trial that began on Jan. 25 that Crumbley couldn’t have known what her son was going to do. She was portrayed as an attentive parent who was aware that her son was going through a hard time, but nothing indicated he would become a school shooter.
“It was unforeseeable; no one expected this,” Shannon Smith, a lawyer for Crumbley, said in her closing arguments. “No one could have expected this, including Mrs. Crumbley.”
But the prosecution argued that Crumbley failed as a parent to perform her legal duty to exercise reasonable oversight to her son to prevent him from harming others and was negligent to the point that it harmed human life.
The prosecution proved Crumbley’s role in the shooting and how she could have intervened at several points beforehand to get her son help or secured the firearms in the home, but she didn’t, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said in her closing arguments.
“We have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that she is guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter. It’s a rare case. It takes some really egregious facts. It takes the unthinkable and she has done the unthinkable and because of that four kids have died,” McDonald said.
Despite audibly crying at several points throughout the trial, Crumbley didn’t have a substantial reaction to the verdict being read. McDonald and other members of the prosecution hugged family members of the slain children.
In addition to the four students who were killed, the shooter injured six other students and a teacher. Molly Darnell, the teacher who was shot in the arm, was the first witness to testify at the start of the trial in January. A total of 22 witnesses spoke during the trial, including Crumbley, members of law enforcement and people who had interactions with Crumbley.
A major element of the prosecution’s justification for the involuntary manslaughter charges was Crumbley’s actions the day of the shooting after she and her husband were called to the school because the shooter had done a drawing of his gun on his math assignment.
Four days prior, the shooter and his father went to a gun shop and the father purchased the gun used in the killings on Black Friday as an early Christmas present.
After the meeting at the school where Crumbley and her husband were advised to seek out professional help for their son, the prosecution brought in witnesses from the school and law enforcement to show that neither parent took the shooter out of school for the day. Neither parent checked their son’s backpack where he had the gun. And neither parent asked their son where his gun was or checked to see if it was still at home.
There had been other meetings with the shooter’s parents, Shawn Hopkins, the school counselor at the meeting the day of the shooting, said during the trial. He said he was hoping one of the parents would take the shooter home. Although Hopkins didn’t tell them they had to, he thought it was strange they didn’t.
“She sat down in the chair; [I] felt she was a little bit distant. … It felt like it was a little bit of an inconvenience to be there,” Hopkins said of Crumbley during the meeting.
Hopkins said the shooter showed signs of possible suicidal thoughts and he didn’t want him to be alone. Hopkins added that he did not know that the shooter’s father had bought him a gun.
In addition to the drawing of a gun, the shooter’s assignment had the words, “my life is useless” and “the thoughts won’t stop help me,” written in addition to other statements and drawings.
When school officials asked Crumbley and her husband to go to the school, Crumbley testified she thought the shooter had sketched the gun in defiance of a recent conversation they had about his falling math grade, during which he had his phone taken away and was told he couldn’t go to the shooting range until his grade improved.
This was the first time she and her husband had been called to the school on an “immediate” time frame, Crumbley testified and she had told her boss she would be back at work an hour later.
Crumbley said she expected her son to get in trouble and get suspended, but the meeting was “nonchalant” and “brief.”
“There is never a time where I would refuse to take him home,” Crumbley testified, adding that she told her husband to start calling mental health professionals suggested by Hopkins.
Crumbley said she and her husband lost everything, adding she doesn’t feel like she failed as a parent and she had no reason to think her son was a danger to anyone else. She said she doesn’t look back and think she would have done anything differently.
“You spend your whole life trying to protect your child from other dangers. You never would think you have to protect your child from harming somebody else,” Crumbley testified, adding that she wished he would have killed her and her husband instead of the other kids at the school.
The shooter’s father was responsible for gun storage as firearms were not really her thing, Crumbley said. The gun that was bought for her son’s use was secured using a cable lock and the key to unlock it was hidden in one of the many decorative beer steins throughout the house.
The prosecution “cherry-picked” evidence to make Crumbley look like a negligent mother and conflate the magnitude of the tragedy with Crumbley’s parenting, Smith said as part of Crumbley’s defense. Hours of the trial were dedicated to members of law enforcement going over the gruesome details of the shooting. But Smith said the case came down to the prosecution improperly asking the jury to come to the assumption that Crumbley could have conceived what no parent would think their child would be capable of.
“When you look back in hindsight, with 20-20 vision … it is easy to say this could have been different, that could have been different, this would have changed,” Smith said.
Due to the community impact of the shooting and the future legal implications for parents of mass shooters in the future, the case has garnered national attention.
The jury’s verdict stands as a reminder to parents and gun owners that they are responsible for ensuring children can’t access their firearms unsupervised, Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement after the verdict was read.
“Plain and simple, the deadly shooting at Oxford High School in 2021 should have — and could have — been prevented had the Crumbley’s not acquired a gun for their 15-year-old son,” Suplina said. “This decision is an important step forward in ensuring accountability and, hopefully, preventing future tragedies.”
The decision marks Michigan setting a standard for the legal response to “when our kids are killed in their sanctuaries,” U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) said in a statement Tuesday. She applauded several pieces of gun reform legislation Michigan will enact on Feb. 13, which includes safe storage laws for firearms.
“Today is a historic day in Michigan, and really for the whole country. Having watched the Oxford community go through this school shooting firsthand, and seeing the lifelong hole it ripped in the lives of everyone involved, this verdict feels like a small moment of relief,” Slotkin said. “It is my hope that it brings a bit of peace to the survivors and to the entire community, as I know everyone in Oxford has worked to heal together over the past two years.”
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