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Legal experts weigh in on manslaughter charges brought against parents of alleged Michigan school shooter

Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald addresses the media in her office, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Pontiac, Mich. McDonald filed involuntary manslaughter charges against Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, who is accused of killing four students at a Michigan high school.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Experts on Friday said Michigan prosecutors appear to have adequate legal grounds for charging the parents of a teen accused of fatally shooting four people at Oxford High School with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

“Although Michigan doesn’t require parents to lock up their guns, they can’t act recklessly to put lives in danger,” tweeted Palm Beach County, Fla. State Attorney Dave Aronberg. “The facts as reported appear to satisfy the requirements of involuntary manslaughter.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel also tweeted out support for the decision of her colleague, Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney Karen D. McDonald, to charge the parents.

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“I fully support Prosecutor McDonald’s issuance of Involuntary Manslaughter charges against the parents of the alleged shooter,” Nessel tweeted. “Demanding accountability of a child’s parents under the circumstances presented isn’t just appropriate, it’s essential. Justice demands no less.”

The officials shared their thoughts after McDonald announced Friday that her office is charging Jennifer and James Crumbley, parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

The parents’ charges stem from Ethan Crumbley’s alleged shooting rampage Tuesday at Oxford High, located about 30 miles north of Detroit, that killed four students and injured seven other people. Ethan Crumbley faces two dozen adult criminal charges, including murder, attempted murder, and terrorism.

The investigation showed Ethan Crumbley was present when the semi-automatic gun was purchased by his father last week, according to McDonald. Ethan Crumbley had posted a photo of the gun to social media, writing, “‘Just got my new beauty today,’” McDonald said, adding that he included an emoji with hearts and the phrase, “‘Any questions I will answer.’”

McDonald said the day before the shooting, a teacher at Oxford High saw Ethan searching ammunition on his phone during class and reported it to school officials. Jennifer was contacted by voicemail by school officials about her son’s “inappropriate Internet search,” McDonald said.

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Jennifer then allegedly exchanged text messages about the incident with Ethan on that day and wrote: “Lol I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

The morning of the shooting, a teacher saw a drawing of blood, a gun, and the words “help me” on Ethan Crumbley’s desk. The drawing included a person who appeared to have been shot twice and was bleeding. His parents were then summoned to the school, McDonald said.

“At the meeting [with school employees and their son], James and Jennifer Crumbley were shown the drawing and were advised that they were required to get their son into counseling within 48 hours,” McDonald said. “Both James and Jennifer Crumbley failed to ask their son if he had his gun with him, or where his gun was located, and failed to inspect his backpack for the presence of the gun, which he had with him.”

The parents, McDonald said, “resisted the idea” of their son leaving school at that time, and he was returned to class, with the mass shooting unfolding later in the day.

While it’s rare for parents to be charged in connection with mass shootings perpetrated by their children, McDonald said in this case the parents committed “egregious” acts, including buying a gun and making it available to Ethan Crumbley and failing to intervene when they were summoned to the school Tuesday and confronted with the drawing.

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“Manslaughter charges are absolutely appropriate in this case,” said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor who also served as enforcement director of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, via e-mail Friday. “Under Michigan law, a involuntary manslaughter conviction requires the government to prove that the father and mother created a situation where the risk of great bodily harm or death was very high. What could be more dangerous than James and Jennifer Crumbley buying a gun for their son?”

Though the charges filed against the parents are uncommon, Rahmani continued, “their conduct is far worse than an accident or simple negligence. Crumbley’s parents could have prevented this shooting, and they should be held criminally responsible.”

Martin G. Weinberg, a prominent criminal defense lawyer based in Boston, called the charges against the Crumbley parents a “dramatic” legal development, though he questioned whether it’s a proper expansion of criminal law.

He said it’s a rare “if not unprecedented attempt to expand the criminal law into a parent’s duty to give authorities, whether school or law enforcement, evidence against their child. If the prosecution is predicated on a parent being required to volunteer evidence that could lead to a child’s being prosecuted or even barred from attending school, it is a dramatic and to my knowledge unprecedented attempt to expand the criminal law.”

Weinberg conceded there’s no parent-child privilege like the privilege accorded to spouses, who can’t be compelled to testify against one another.

However, he continued, “there is no free-floating duty enforced by the potential of criminal punishment to warn authorities that their child is a danger to others. We should be careful expanding the use of the criminal law to enforce basic views of right and wrong.”

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He said society “has a large number of responses to profoundly bad and catastrophically painful parental decisions: reputational shaming, civil litigation with monetary penalties, the eternal knowledge they could have saved both their child and the children of others by exercising prudent judgment. The criminal law should be reserved in my view for those with criminal intent.”

Lara Yeretsian, a prominent criminal defense lawyer based in California, said via email that the charges against the Crumbley parents “may be” appropriate based on the evidence that’s come to light so far.

“The parents purchased the gun for their son, gave him access to it, and most importantly when the school brought to their attention their son’s disturbing drawing, they should have at the least either searched his bag or taken him out of the school grounds,” she wrote. “Both the parents and the school failed in that respect, but the parents were in a better position to prevent the bloodbath since they knew of the gun.”

Asha Rangappa, a legal commentator and former FBI special agent, tweeted Friday that Michigan does have statutes that would appear to open James and Jennifer Crumbley to criminal charges.

She wrote that Michigan has a misdemeanor statute that would hold the parents liable if their child commits a firearm offense in a school zone, and the parent “knows of” or acts to further the offense.

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“Michigan also appears to allow for criminal liability if an owner negligently or recklessly allows a firearm to be discharged, though not clear from wording if it could directly be applied to a minor accessing that weapon (and it’s still a misdemeanor),” Rangappa wrote.

By contrast, she continued, Michigan’s “involuntary manslaughter law allows for that underlying negligent or reckless conduct, or unlawful misdemeanor act to be charged as a *felony* if an unintentional killing results from that conduct.”

Rangappa, who also teaches at Yale’s Jackson Institute, said the felony conviction carries a prison term of up to 15 years, as opposed to “minimal” jail time for the misdemeanors.

“Importantly, a felony conviction would prevent the parents from owning a firearm under federal law, whereas a misdemeanor conviction would not,” Rangappa wrote.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report, and Amanda Kaufman of the Globe Staff contributed.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.