The trials of the Michigan school shooter’s parents are set to test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting

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The parents of Ethan Crumbley, the teen who opened fire in 2021 at his high school in Oxford, Michigan, are set to go on trial for manslaughter in a case that will test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting.

James and Jennifer Crombley have pleaded not guilty to four counts of manslaughter for their alleged role in their son’s rampage, which left four students dead and seven others injured. They face up to 15 years in prison.

They will be tried separately. Opening statements in Jennifer Crombley’s trial are scheduled for Thursday, and James Crombley’s trial is tentatively scheduled to begin March 5.

By filing manslaughter charges, prosecutors claim the gunman’s parents are also responsible for the students’ deaths — a new and unusual legal theory.

“It is not the first time a parent has been held liable for the actions of a child or shooter, however, these charges typically relate to child neglect or manifest as failure to keep a firearm locked,” Misty said. Maris, the trial attorney who prosecuted the case. “This is very different because it actually holds them responsible for the killings.”

In particular, prosecutors accused the gunman’s parents of ignoring the risks when they bought a gun for their son four days before the shooting, even though he was struggling with his mental health and contemplating violence. They also say the parents did not mention the gun to school officials at a meeting to discuss Ethan’s disturbing drawings just hours before the fatal shooting.

Defense attorneys for the parents have acted He argued the charges It has no legal justification, but the appellate courts do I supported them. The defense is expected to say during the trial that the gunman’s parents did not reasonably expect their son would use a weapon in a mass shooting and that their actions did not cause the killing.

ethan crumble, He speaks at his sentencing hearing “They didn’t know, and I didn’t tell them what I intended to do, so they’re not at fault for what I did,” he said in December. His testimony about his parents’ knowledge of his mental health struggles could be key to the case, but it’s not clear at this point whether he will testify.

His lawyers have indicated that he will exercise his Fifth Amendment right to silence if called to testify, as an appeal of the ruling remains open. In court on Tuesday, Jennifer Crombley asked the judge to force her son and his two prison psychiatrists to testify, while the shooter’s lawyers indicated they would not waive the privilege or confidentiality of his medical records, the testimony of his doctors or his own testimony.

Mares said the experiments would focus specifically on what parents did not do, and whether that made them responsible. “That’s why this case is difficult because a lot of it is based on omission, not action,” she said. “A lot of criminal culpability is because you did something, not because you failed to do something. That’s why this legal argument is so new and so new and in fact so groundbreaking.”

The evidence and arguments may also differ for each parent. Jennifer and James Crumbley were working for a joint defense, but their case was dismissed after their defense learned of a conflict between the two. According to a prosecutor’s filing last year, Jennifer Crombley “blamed” her husband for the shooting, which led to the separation.

Pretrial hearings reviewed the evidence

On November 30, 2021, Ethan Crombley, then 15, took a gun from an open container in his home, hid it in his backpack and removed it in the bathroom before opening fire on his schoolmates.

He has pleaded guilty to one count terrorism Causing death, four counts of murder and 19 other charges related to the fatal attack. He was sentenced last year to prison Life in prison without parole.

At pretrial hearings, prosecutors presented text messages and other evidence that they said showed his parents ignored obvious warning signs.

According to phone evidence, Ethan texted a friend saying he was having hallucinations and hearing voices and asked his parents to take him to the doctor. In response, his father gave him pills and told him to “suck it”, to which his mother laughed. According to the texts.

On Black Friday, four days before the shooting, James Crombley bought the gun at a store in Oxford with his son, according to prosecutors. Jennifer Crumbley She later posted on her social media“Mother and son are testing out a new Christmas gift,” prosecutors said.

Days later, when the school notified them that Ethan was searching online for ammunition on his phone, Jennifer Crumbley texted her son: “Haha, I’m not mad at you. You need to learn not to get caught,” according to prosecutors.

Finally, on the morning of the shooting, a teacher found A A drawing from Ethan showing a gun And a bleeding person with the phrases “Thoughts won’t stop helping me,” “Blood everywhere,” and “My life is useless.” His parents were called to school for an assembly, but they did not inform the school that Ethan had a gun and refused to remove him from the classroom for the day.

Shortly after, Ethan pulled the gun from his bag and opened fire.

His parents have been held in prison since their arrest on manslaughter charges days after the shooting.

What could this mean for parents

There have been several other cases in which parents have been accused of shooting their children, although there has not been a single case of a mass school shooting.

For example, The father of the July 4 mass shooting in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, He was accused of wrongdoing Signing his son’s request to Illinois Firearm Owners Identification Card Months after his son displayed troubling behavior. Father Robert Cremo Jr. at the end Admission of guilt He was charged with misdemeanor reckless conduct and agreed to serve 60 days in jail.

In a similar context, A.’s mother said: A 6-year-old boy shot his teacher At a Virginia school last year, he faced charges. The boy’s mother eventually admitted her guilt before A State child neglect charge and felony charges of unlawful use of a controlled substance while in possession of a firearm and making a false statement while purchasing a firearm.

But experts say Crombley’s case is different.

Parents can be held liable for their children’s actions, such as skipping school, said Frank Vandervoort, a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. But this level of risk is different.

“We impose on parents certain obligations in relation to their children, to say that you have a high degree of responsibility for what happens when your children do things. That’s generally in the law,” he said. “I think the seriousness of the charges is what’s unique here.”

Could this case set a new precedent for parents?

in The written opinion was filed last Marcha panel of state appeals court judges acknowledged the potentially precedent-setting nature of this case but called the situation unique and unusual.

“We share the defendants’ concern about the potential for this decision to apply in the future to parents whose situation with respect to their children’s intentional conduct is not closely related, and/or the warning signs and evidence are not substantial.” As they are here,” the committee wrote.

Those concerns were “substantially diminished” by the fact that Crombley’s actions “were reasonably foreseeable, and that is the ultimate test to apply,” the opinion said.

Vandervoort similarly said he believed this case was so unusual and uncommon that its impact would be limited.

“I don’t expect there’s going to be a lot of that kind of stuff. I think this is a very unique case,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about teen shootings as normal. “Unless you have really unusual real-life situations, I don’t expect a lot of parents to be charged.”

However, Joey Jackson, a CNN legal analyst, said the prosecution’s overall goal in bringing this case is to deter other parents.

“They want to deter other parents from neglect,” he said. “They want to make sure we have diligent parents who don’t put their children in a position where they can easily obtain firearms.”

CNN’s Lauren del Valle, Jean Casarez and Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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