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Is Charging Parents in High School Shooting a New Legal Strategy?

By Andrew Leonatti | Last updated on

Another tragic school shooting occurred late last month. In Oxford Township, Michigan, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley allegedly shot 11 at his Oxford High School, killing four students and injuring six students and a teacher.

In total, the teen is facing 24 charges, including first-degree murder and terrorism causing death. Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald is charging Crumbley as an adult.

These developments likely come as a shock to no one. What is different about this case is that Crumbley's parents are now joining him in jail in what could be a new legal strategy for trying to curb deadly incidents like this.

Parents Facing Involuntary Manslaughter Charges

As investigators began looking for clues into Crumbley's motivation for the shooting, their attention fixated one thing: an Instagram post days before the shooting showing off a new 9mm Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun purchased by Crumbley's father, James.

Another post by Crumbley's mother, Jennifer, showed a "mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present" featuring the same weapon.

Those details, a pattern of disturbing behavior known to Ethan's parents and school officials, and James and Jennifer leaving the gun unlocked (Michigan does not have a gun storage law) led McDonald to charge James and Jennifer Crumbley with involuntary manslaughter.

"There are other individuals who contributed to the events on November 30, and it's my intention to hold them accountable as well," McDonald said.

All three Crumbleys pled not guilty to the charges. They are all being held at the same facility, unable to communicate with each other.

A New Front in Fighting School Shootings?

According to news reports, this appears to be the first school shooting that resulted in a teenage shooter's parents facing prosecution. In a 2000 case in Michigan, an adult pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter for failing to secure a gun that a 6-year-old used to shoot a classmate.

However, in that case, and others involving adults failing to secure guns, the children were young enough that the law did not consider them to have criminal intent. So the fault lay with the adults.

"Here you have a teenager who can form his own criminal intent," says George Mason University law professor Robert Leider, meaning Ethan Crumbley alone is responsible for his actions.

However, Michigan law does not allow children under 18 to possess firearms other than for special circumstances like hunting while under adult supervision. In her press conference, McDonald intended to send a message to parents who keep guns in the house.

"I am not here to say that people shouldn't own guns. I know a lot of people who own guns, but they do so responsibly. And it's your responsibility, it's your duty, to make sure that you don't give access to this deadly weapon to somebody that you have reason to believe is going to harm someone."

University of Detroit Mercy law professor Lawrence Dubin appeared to agree with McDonald, arguing that the charges could stick if the prosecution proves that Ethan Crumbley's parents knew he was dangerous but allowed him access to the gun anyway.

The case against James and Jennifer Crumbley will undoubtedly attract a lot of attention. It's also important to remember that they have the right to mount a vigorous defense, just like anyone else accused of a crime. They will likely argue that they could not have reasonably expected their son to do what he did. The outcome will likely affect prosecutions after school shootings for years.

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