Jennifer Crumbley, who was found guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter on Tuesday, did not kill anyone, not even “involuntarily.”
Rather, it was her son Ethan who, in November 2021, sneaked a gun into his Michigan high school and killed four of his classmates. He pleaded guilty in 2022 and in December received a life sentence with no chance of parole.
Did his parents share some of the blame for his killing spree? Of course they did. His dad James bought the then–15-year-old Ethan a semiautomatic handgun as an early Christmas present, and then left it in an open drawer. Ethan told his mom that he saw demons. He wrote in his journal that “I have zero help for my mental problems.” But Jennifer Crumbley ignored the signs that her son needed help.
Most shocking of all, on the morning of the shooting, school officials wanted Jennifer to take Ethan home after they saw a drawing he’d done of a gun and a bleeding human body. “The thoughts won’t stop,” he’d written. “Help me.” Jennifer promised she would take him to a therapist, but in the meantime, she left him at school. Neither she nor the school officials realized he had the gun in his backpack. Hours later, he went on his rampage.
Jennifer Crumbley won’t be sentenced until April 9, but it is likely she will spend a decent stretch in prison—each of the four counts against her can bring up to 15 years. If Ethan’s father James, whose involuntary manslaughter trial begins next month, is also found guilty, he’ll likely face the same punishment.
Involuntary manslaughter is the charge people face when they kill someone by accident—something neither Jennifer nor James did. Never before has it been used to put away parents whose negligence led to a mass shooting.
But so what?
According to The Washington Post, there have been almost 400 school shootings since the Columbine massacre in 1999. An estimated 440 people have been killed and 1,243 injured by shooters at K-12 schools in the last 25 years.
In all that time, rarely has a parent of a mass shooter been held responsible for the murders their kids committed, even though they often saw warning signs they should have acted on. Not until prosecutors in Oakland County, Michigan, put Jennifer Crumbley on trial.
Why has the judicial system largely left parents alone? Two reasons. The first is that the parents are invariably wracked with shame and guilt and pain that is never going to go away. Prosecutors have children, too; they can well understand the parents’ agony. And they usually conclude that that anguish is punishment enough.
The second reason, though, is that the law doesn’t really have anything to say about the actions of parents whose kids use the family gun to shoot their fellow students. In fact, even on those rare occasions when prosecutors have sought to punish negligent parents, the sentences were little more than a slap on the wrist.
A classic example was the 2022 mass shooting that took place during a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. The shooter, 21-year-old Robert Crimo III, killed seven people with a gun he had acquired several years earlier. It turns out that he was able to buy the gun thanks to his father, Robert Crimo Jr., who sponsored his Firearms Owners Identification (FOID) card application despite knowing his son had a history of mental instability. Charged with “misdemeanor reckless conduct,” Crimo Jr. pleaded guilty—and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. Not exactly the kind of punishment that’s going to act as a deterrent.
There are obvious differences between the Crimo and Crumbley cases. The totality of Crumbley’s actions—and inaction—which were microscopically examined during her trial, made clear that she was an appallingly negligent mother. And there were extraneous factors, like her extramarital affair, that prosecutors knew would inflame the jury.
But another big difference is that Karen McDonald, the Oakland County prosecutor, and a mother of five, was willing to try something beyond thoughts and prayers—she devised a “novel legal theory,” as the lawyers call it, stretching the meaning of “involuntary manslaughter” to include two parents who, if they had paid closer attention to their troubled son, could have prevented the deaths of four teenagers. There were members of her own team who cautioned her against taking such a huge risk, but she went ahead anyway, knowing that if she won, it could be a game changer.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she told The New York Times back in December 2021. “If the jury decides that they aren’t criminally culpable, I can live with that.”
I’ve thought about the issue of parental responsibility when children shoot other children for a long time, and I’ll tell you why. I was a columnist at The New York Times when Adam Lanza killed 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. In the aftermath, my assistant Jennifer Mascia and I began to compile each day’s gun deaths. We called it “The Gun Report,” and it ran daily for about 18 months. The single most shocking thing to me was not the school shootings. It was how many young children shot and killed a sibling or a cousin because a parent had carelessly left a gun around the house. There had to be at least three a week sometimes.
As tragic as these shootings were for the parents, I thought at the time that if prosecutors tried them criminally, these horrible accidents surely would decline. I still believe that. The same, I think, is true of parents of school shooters. Prosecute some of them, and it will have a sobering effect on every parent of a gun-loving, but troubled, kid.
Would it be better if Congress passed a law making parents responsible for their kid’s shootings? Of course it would. But that’s never going to happen. So we have to take what we can get—and what we’ve got is this novel legal theory. If other prosecutors pick up on the Crumbley case and begin charging parents of school shooters with involuntary manslaughter, I guarantee you these shootings will decline.
To Jennifer Crumbley, this must all seem incredibly unfair—to be the first parent criminally convicted of a charge that hundreds of parents of mass shooters never faced. But if her conviction helps reduce these massacres, that’s a secondary concern.
Crumbley’s conviction has the potential to radically change the legal landscape for parents of school shooters. That sight of Jennifer walking out of court after the jury rendered its verdict, her head bowed sadly and her hands shackled—that’s an image gun-owning parents aren’t going to forget anytime soon. It is possible—in fact, I think it’s likely—that her conviction could serve, at long last, as a deterrent to the scourge of school shootings.
“I feel that this verdict is going to echo through every household in the country,” said Craig Shilling, whose 17-year-old son Justin was killed by Ethan Crumbley. “We all know we are to be held responsible for anything we do.”
Let’s hope he’s right.
For an alternative take, read Billy Binion’s piece in Reason, “Mom’s Manslaughter Conviction for Her Son’s School Shooting Sets a Dangerous Precedent.”
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