‘Unprecedented’ trials of Oxford shooter’s parents could have far-reaching implications

Posted at 8:23 AM, January 22, 2024 and last updated 8:02 AM, January 23, 2024

PONTIAC, Mich. (Scripps News Detroit) — Two years since unprecedented involuntary manslaughter charges were announced again them, the parents of the Oxford High School shooter are preparing to go to trial.

James and Jennifer Crumbley each face up to 60 years in prison for failing to stop their son, Ethan Crumbley, from killing four of his classmates.

Jennifer Crumbley is scheduled to go to trial first, with jury selection beginning Tuesday, Jan. 23.

(L) James Crumbley, (R) Jennifer Crumbley (Oakland County Jail)

Legal experts nationwide are expected to watch the trials closely, as they’re likely to have far-reaching implications for how future school shooter cases are handled by prosecutors.

“It’s just such a terrifying thought as a parent, and I think that probably—consciously or subconsciously—fuels (Oakland County Prosecutor) Karen McDonald in bringing these charges,” said attorney Michael Bullotta.

For 23 years, Bullotta was a federal prosecutor in Detroit and Los Angeles. Now, he’s a criminal defense attorney.

“Would you rather defend this case or prosecute it?” asked Scripps News Detroit’s Ross Jones.

“It’s such a tough case,” Bullotta said. “I certainly don’t think I’d want to prosecute it…the parents did contribute to this, but did they cause the death?”

Key evidence in the trials is expected to include how Ethan’s parents secured the gun he later used to commit the mass shooting along with his cries for help.

By charging each parent with involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution needs to prove two things: first, that the Crumbleys were grossly negligent—meaning they knew about the dangers posed by allowing their son access to a gun—and second, that the gun coupled with Ethan’s cries for help made the Oxford shooting a foreseeable tragedy.

“I think the jury’s first reaction is going to be…’Wow, I’m on this case where these four children died. It’s incredibly tragic, it’s unspeakable, it’s unimaginable,'” Bullotta said.

(But) if it’s unimaginable, if it’s so tragic and so horrible and unusual, how can it be foreseeable?”

While involuntary manslaughter chargers are unprecedented in a case like this, there have been recent examples where parents of shooters have faced prosecution.

Last year, a 6-year-old Virginia boy shot his teacher using his mother’s gun. She was charged with using marijuana while possessing a firearm, and in November was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

That same month, the father of an Illinois man pleaded guilty to seven misdemeanor charges of reckless conduct after he helped his son obtain a gun that he later used to kill seven people. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

When the case begins on January 23, the first order of business will be selecting a jury, a process that could take several days or longer given the case’s high-profile nature.

Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, a teenager accused of killing four students in a shooting at Oxford High School, appear in court for a preliminary examination on involuntary manslaughter charges in Rochester Hills, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to get a fair trial in Oakland County, given all the pre-trial publicity,” said Mike Rataj, a criminal defense attorney.

Rataj is surprised the case wasn’t moved outside of Metro Detroit, where the case received less media attention.

“In the court of public opinion, these people are guilty,” Rataj said. “And what people need to keep in mind is that the Crumbleys are presumed to be innocent.”

At least some of the key evidence to be introduced at trial is already known.

Recently, Judge Cheryl Matthews ruled to allow video from inside the school that day along with the testimony of a teacher who was shot, an assistant principal who talked to Ethan before his arrest and a witness to one of the four murders.

When the first trial begins on Tuesday, the case will have the attention of lawyers nationwide.

The verdict—if there is one—will influence how school shooting cases are charged going forward.

“This is a prime example of a case that could result in a mistrial,” Bullotta said.

There probably will be some jurors saying this is so horrible, these parents are terrible, they need to be held accountable. And then there’s other jurors who say hey I’m a parent, I don’t want to be responsible for the actions of my children.”

This story was originally published by Scripps News Detroit, an E.W. Scripps Company.