Father of Michigan school shooter found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in historic case

He and wife Jennifer Crumbley have now both been convicted over son Ethan’s 2021 attack at Oxford High School

Andrea Cavallier
Thursday 14 March 2024 23:23 GMT
James Crumbley trial: Prosecution’s closing arguments

A Michigan jury has found James Crumbley guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection to the 2021 Oxford High School shooting carried out by his son that claimed the lives of four students.

The shooter’s father shook his head slowly in court on Thursday as the verdict was read. The jury reached its unanimous verdict in the historic trial after around 11 hours of deliberation.

Crumbley, 47, who had pleaded not guilty, was accused of failing to safely secure the gun used by his son Ethan Crumbley and not seeking help for the boy’s mental distress.

He declined to testify in his defence – unlike his wife, Jennifer Crumbley, 45, who was found guilty of the same charges in February. She will be sentenced on 9 April.

In December, their son was convicted of killing four of his classmates and injuring seven others on 30 November 2021. Ethan, now 17, is serving a life prison sentence.

A jury has reached a verdict in the involuntary manslaughter trial of James Crumbley (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press via AP, Pool)

Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Hana St Juliana, 14, and Justin Shilling, 17, were all killed in the 30 November massacre at Oxford High School.

The Crumbleys are the first US parents to be charged – and now convicted – with having criminal responsibility for a mass school shooting committed by a child.

After a swift five-day trial, state prosecutor Karen McDonald urged the jury during her closing argument to convict James Crumbley, saying he ignored the “easiest, most glaring opportunities” to prevent the killing of four students, especially when confronted with his son’s violent classroom drawing.

“James Crumbley was presented with the easiest, most glaring opportunities to prevent the deaths of four students and he did nothing,” Ms McDonald said. “He did nothing — over and over and over again.”

Instead of taking Ethan Crumbley home, as the school counsellor insisted, James Crumbley left Oxford High School with his wife and made DoorDash runs, she said.

He didn’t check the house for a gun similar to the one in the drawing until news of the shooting started to spread in the small community. That’s when he frantically called 911 and said the gun was missing — and his 15-year-old son could be the killer.

James Crumbley trial: Defense's closing arguments

“There were 1,800 students at Oxford High School,” Ms McDonald said. “There was one parent who suspected their son was a school shooter, and it was James Crumbley. You know what that’s called? That’s called foreseeability.”

This was a point prosecutors pressed throughout the trial, using the same language as in his wife’s trial. The prosecution called the then 15-year-old’s shooting “preventable and foreseeable.”

For example, in April 2021, jurors saw texts from Ethan Crumbley to his friend, revealing that the high school sophomore complained that he was hearing things. He told his friend that he had alerted his parents to hearing “voices”.

“I actually asked my dad to take [me] to the doctor yesterday but he just gave me some pills and told me to ‘suck it up’,” the teen texted.

Parents in Michigan have a “legal duty” to exercise reasonable care to prevent their child from harming others, the prosecutor said in closing arguments.

Ethan’s parents met with Oxford High School counsellor Shawn Hopkins on 30 November - just hours before the shooting - over concern about Ethan’s declining mental state after a teacher alerted him to the teen’s violent drawings and disturbing messages that read: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me. Blood everywhere. The world is dead.”

He testified that “on the surface level” it appeared James Crumbley was showing the appropriate level of care for Ethan because of the comments he heard him saying at the meeting.

“He was talking to his son and mentioned, ‘You have people you can talk to. You can talk to your counsellor, you have your journal. We talk,’” Mr Hopkins recalled. “It felt appropriate at that time, but my concern at that point was there wasn’t any action.”

Mr Hopkins testified that he insisted they take the teen home, but they refused and left only with a list of mental health providers.

“I didn’t want him left alone,” the counsellor added, as he made the decision that the student would be better staying in class with the students rather than going home and being alone.

The parents did not tell school staff that a Sig Sauer 9mm handgun had been purchased by James Crumbley just four days earlier.

Ethan called the gun “my beauty” on social media. He took it to school, pulled it from his backpack and began shooting, killing four students. No one had checked his bag.

Nicole Beausoleil mother of Madisyn Baldwin, who was killed in a mass shooting at Oxford High School in 2021, becomes emotional (AP)

Federal agent Brett Brandon previously testified that a cable to lock the Sig Sauer gun case was unused and still sealed in plastic when authorities searched the Crumbley home.

During closing arguments, Ms McDonald demonstrated to the jury how to use it, picking up the murder weapon, inserting a lock and removing the keys.

“Ten seconds,” she said, “of the easiest, simplest thing.”

Defence attorney Mariell Lehman rested her case after calling just one witness, Ethan’s aunt.

James Crumbley declined to testify, telling the judge he understood the risks and benefits of speaking to the jury.

“He didn’t know that his son knew where those firearms were,” Ms Lehman told the jury. “Absence of evidence ... can be your reasonable doubt.”

Hana St Juliana, 14, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Tate Myre, 16 and Justin Shilling, 17, pictured at a memorial (AP)

His wife, on the other hand, testified at her own trial, which concluded in February.

She told the jury that she wouldn’t have done anything differently.

During her trial, the prosecution argued that Jennifer understood that her son was experiencing a “downward spiral”, but still, the “gun was gifted”.

This trial was about her “willful disregard of the danger that she knew of”, the prosecutor said, adding that Jennifer and her husband “didn’t do any number of tragically small and easy things that would have prevented all this from happening”.

“Jennifer Crumbley didn’t pull the trigger that day. But she’s responsible for their deaths,” the attorney said.

The importance of storing a gun properly — and the responsibility falling on parents to do so — became evident after his wife’s guilty verdict was read. The jury foreperson explained that the jury’s decision hinged on the fact that she was “the last adult with the gun.”

The defence team, by contrast, described Jennifer as a “hypervigilant” mother who “cared more about her son than anything in the world”.

James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, in mugshots during their arrest (Oakland County Sheriff's Office)

She took her son to soccer practice, basketball, and bowling, and even took him to urgent care when a 1mm mole changed colour, the defence said.

Despite this claim, the attorney insisted that her client didn’t “have it on her radar in any way that there was any mental disturbance, that her son would ever take a gun into a school, that her son would ever shoot people.”

The pair initially came under scrutiny for their strange behaviour in the aftermath of the shooting. Reports showed the couple drained their son’s bank account.

They withdrew cash, sold their horses, and bought four burner phones in the hours after finding out that their son had opened fire.

When they were arrested four days after the shooting, the couple reportedly had $6,600 in cash, credit cards, gift cards and four phones.

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